This year’s U.S. Senate race in Utah pits incumbent Republican Mike Lee against political newcomer Misty Snow. She faces an uphill road to unseat Lee, but is taking a much different approach than fellow Democrats who’ve run before her.
Misty Snow is at her campaign headquarters, shared with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Weinholtz.
About 20 volunteers are crowded into a room for a pizza and phone bank event. Snow’s campaign hands out lists of 18- to 25-year-old registered voters in Salt Lake County.
Kayla Porter grabs a sheet and quickly starts typing out messages on her phone.
“So I’m texting ‘Vote for Misty K. Snow. She is running to become the first millennial in the U.S. Senate, and will be a voice for your generation. Learn more at MistyKSnow.com.’ And Misty wrote that herself," says Porter.
Has she gotten any replies?
"Not yet," she says. "Oh, just got one [laughs]: 'Who is this?'"
It’s about two-and-a-half weeks before election day and the upbeat Snow is still introducing herself to new voters. The 31-year-old grocery store clerk was born and raised in Salt Lake County. She’s also the first transgender candidate nominated by a major party for senate.
But, Snow says what matters most is her background as a working-class progressive.
“One of the things that really got me running was because I feel like there are a lot of issues that affect the working class that don’t get a voice in Washington,” she says.
Snow points out she’s never even been to Washington. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ run for president, Snow entered the Senate race and beat moderate Democrat Jonathan Swinton in the primary. She used almost her entire federal tax return to pay the $1,200 filing fee.
“But I just did it,” she says. “I knew it was a crazy thing. I’m like, ‘What am I thinking? This is freaking crazy,’ but my gut’s telling me you gotta do it. It’s going to work out. And I did.”
She now faces incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, a former Constitutional lawyer who was first elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party movement.
During a recent debate, Lee told the audience that his role as senator is to serve as a check to an increasingly powerful executive branch.
“Over the years, I’ve helped to ban earmarks, to overturn President Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments and to end, once and for all, warrantless surveillance against U.S. citizens,” said Lee.
As Lee has highlighted his record as a junior senator, Snow has been eager to point to his most prominent role, alongside Sen. Ted Cruz, in the 2013 government shutdown — which was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans.
In a tense scrum with reporters this month after their debate, Lee cast blame on the media and President Obama for the fallout.
“There is no vote to shut down the government!” said Lee, when asked if he would take the same action again.
“Well, would you let this happen again?” the reporter persisted.
“Well, no — but I didn’t let it happen to begin with," he said. "There is no vote to shut down the government.”
But opinions on Capitol Hill don’t necessarily hold sway with Utah voters. Snow has been polling about 30 points behind Lee for most of the race and faces a considerable financial disadvantage. According to their most recent filings, Lee had more than $1 million in his war chest compared to Snow, who had about $8,000 on hand.
Reinforcing his contrarian streak, Lee has also been one of the earliest and most vocal critics of his party’s presidential nominee. After Donald Trump’s lewd remarks in a leaked video were widely publicized, Lee called on Trump to withdraw.
“The fact is, we have been asked to settle, we’ve been asked to settle time and time again with our government,” he said in a Facebook Live video. “And we’ve been asked, of great principle with our candidate for president of the United States. This can’t continue.”
Lee has not decided who he’ll voting for, though it won’t be Hillary Clinton. Snow, on the other hand, is backing Clinton, and believes Utah’s recent shift to battleground status means she could do better than most people expect.
“People who vote for Clinton tend to also be voting for me, so the more voters she can get to show up and turn out, I think will help me,” she says.
Snow is running on a Sanders-inspired progressive platform that includes paid maternity leave, clean energy investments and legalization of marijuana.
Lee, meanwhile, is pushing for smaller government, criminal justice reform and religious liberties protections.
“The problem in terms of the state is its overwhelmingly Republican, so any Democrat is going to have a very difficult situation,” says Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
He says in the year of anti-establishment candidate, Snow has received support from younger, engaged voters, but may have a tougher road in such a predominantly conservative state.
“But what most Democrats who have been able able to be competitive have been people who can run and at least appeal to moderate Republicans, particularly if the Republican candidate is quite conservative.”
The last Utah Democrat to be elected to the U.S. Senate was more than four decades ago. Sen. Frank Moss served three terms before losing re-election in 1976.
As much as Snow is banking on millennials to lift her up, a recent trip to Brigham Young University revealed many students who were unaware or skeptical of her candidacy.
Susanna Clawson is a freshman at BYU and first-time voter.
“I think that’s Utah going overboard on trying to prove that we accept everybody and equality and stuff like that,” she says. “I really don’t believe she’s as qualified.”
Snow acknowledges winning will be difficult. A benchmark she’s setting for herself is to outperform previous Democratic candidates, gaining more than 33 percent of the vote.
To do that, she won’t be playing it safe leading up to election day.