Will a transgender woman be Utah's next senator?

Misty Snow just won Utah's Democratic primary. She will challenge incumbent Sen. Mike Lee (R) this November.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Democratic candidate Misty Snow poses for a photograph in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, the day she won Utah's Democratic US Senate primary. The transgender woman making her first foray into politics will face off against incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee in November.

In conservative Utah, a transgender grocery store clerk turned politician has just been elected as the Democratic candidate to challenge sitting Republican Sen. Mike Lee in the upcoming election.

Misty Snow's landslide victory over her more moderate Democratic primary opponent, Jonathan Swinton, came as a surprise to observers who think of Utah as a conservative state.

Of course, Utah's conservative bona fides are well established. As of 2012, it had voted Republican by at least 19 percentage points in every presidential election since 1964.

While Utah's politics are often influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints – a religion frequently associated with conservative social and political ideologies – the state has taken progressive stances on many hot-button conservative issues. 

For example, in 2011 Utah became the first state in the country to establish its own guest worker program to aid the enormous population of Mexican immigrants living legally and illegally within its borders. Similarly, Utah is one of only three states in the country where an undocumented immigrant can legally drive a car, The Chicago Tribune reports.

In 2008, after a brief run in the Republican presidential primary, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman won his reelection after campaigning on a platform of environmental protection, increasing regulations, and investing in renewable energy sources – issues not generally associated with conservatives.

Then last year, Utah’s politics took an even more progressive step when the Republican-dominated state legislature voted overwhelmingly to become the 19th state to provide explicit legal protection for all of the state’s LGBT residents – a decision fully backed by the Mormon Church.

For a state whose politicians rail against abortion and same-sex marriage, such a vote spoke volumes for the potentially inclusive nature of such a strongly conservative community.

"The passage of [the bill] is historic," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "A Republican majority has voted to expand Utah’s existing non-discrimination protections to include the state’s LGBT community for the very first time."

Now Utah is making history again, as Ms. Snow becomes the first openly transgender nominee from a major party to run for a United States Senate seat.

"A lot of people have told me whether I win or lose, I’m already making a difference just by running," Snow told The Salt Lake City Tribune. 

"This shows LGBT people that being LGBT is not a barrier to running for political office," Snow told CBS News. "You can be you, and people will respect you for that."

Snow, a grocery store cashier, says she is fighting for working people like herself and campaigning on a platform inspired by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, including a $15-an-hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and free or reduced tuition for higher education.

"While I’m not running on the basis of being a trans woman, my experiences as a trans woman have given me the empathy to understand the struggles of groups that feel that the American Dream is out of reach," she said in a statement. "I’m running to give a voice to the voiceless."

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