If there is any rancor or problems in the Utah GOP, two things are clear: (1) they are not as bad as those for the Democrats, and (2) it has been building for years before the arrival of Trump on the scene. If Trump figures into any of this, his effect has been for the party to make a decision, stand by it, and move on toward victory.
In 2019, Derek Brown was elected party chief in the state. He is a former state legislator who also worked for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). Two other party leaders were elected by defeating incumbents. Brown’s win prompted a congratulatory call from Mike Pence and President Trump tweeted out congratulations. Now comes the intrigue.
For years, the more staunch conservatives within the GOP, led by Phil Wright, have been attempting to purify and purge the party of moderates. Wright was Brown’s main opponent in the battle for state party chair. After several years of these internal battles that sometimes ended up in court, the state GOP was $100,000 in debt. However, as of the middle of 2019, that debt had been paid off, cash was flowing in and staff were being hired. This occurred as the GOP set its sights on recapturing the Fourth District which they lost in 2018 to Democrat Ben McAdams.
The 4th District is perhaps the least staunchly conservative district in the state encompassing parts of Salt Lake City south through Provo. Of course, when people think of Salt Lake City, the first thought is a bastion of conservative Mormons. However, it would surprise most to know that the city has been ranked the third hippest city in the country and fourth best for millennials. In fact, roughly 50% of all mortgages are held by millennials in the area compared to the national average of 9%. Also, 25% of the city is Hispanic and 67% of school-age children speak Spanish at home. While Utah remains predominantly Mormon, Salt Lake City is now majority non-Mormon.
So, what is happening? The answer is an influx of a younger, more educated, and more socially progressive population moving into the region. Utah has one of the highest birth rates in the country. Part of that is attributable to the large Mormon population, but Hispanics are also partially responsible. By the middle of the century, the city’s population is expected to rise by 50%, or by 600,000 people. The area known as Silicon Slopes, which extends from Ogden to Provo, accounts for 80% of the state’s population. Most importantly, in 2016, 23,000 people moved to Utah from California alone as they ran from high taxes and toward greater employment opportunity. It should also be noted that few of them are Mormon.
When Phil Wright complains about GOP party unity, he often cites the fact that transplants from neighboring states are bringing their political beliefs with them and they do not match up with Utah’s traditionally conservative principles. This writer believes this trend is taking place not only in Utah, but in other traditionally red states that were once taken for granted. The key question then becomes what can be done about it?
This is where President Trump enters the scene since the recent battle for state party control was characterized as a battle between the Trump wing and the Romney wing of the party in Utah. In many respects, that battle is personal. Romney’s caginess over questions about impeachment have angered many Republicans in Utah. When Romney attacked Trump over the Zelensky call, Trump responded by calling Romney a “pompous-ass” (a rather honest description, IMHO). In the aftermath, Romney has been seen by some as open to censure of Trump, blasted the President on the floor of the Senate over Syria, and revealed his Twitter alter-ego “Pierre Delecto,” proving that Romney is, in fact, a tool.
So what is Romney’s problem? Some have suggested jealousy- that Trump achieved in 2016 what he could not in 2012. Others claim it is retribution over being passed by for Secretary of State. A third idea is that Romney still has visions of the Oval Office dancing in his head. Most likely, it may be a potent mixture of all three. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said they do not like one another and that their differences are likely personal, not ideological or based on policy.
The battle is having an effect on Romney’s status in Utah. When Lindsey Graham authored a letter condemning the House’s impeachment effort, Romney was one of three Republicans who refused to sign it. This further angered Utah Republicans. In one poll, 51% of respondents disapproved to some degree of the job Romney was doing. Among self-described strong Republicans, the numbers were even worse. The Club for Growth has begun running ads in Utah describing Romney as “slippery,” “stealthy,” and “a Democrat secret asset.”
For his part, Romney is playing a central role in fundraising for vulnerable Republican Senators up for reelection in 2020. He still retains national name recognition and can tap into an extensive donor base.
For the state GOP, the number one priority is retaking the Fourth District. Ben McAdams defeated GOP incumbent Mia Love by less than 700 votes in 2018. This has placed the district in the crosshairs of the NRCC. One declared candidate is Kathleen Anderson, the wife of a former state party chair. Brown also hopes to take back the one state senate seat and and at least three of the five seats lost in the state house.
For the Democrats, improving upon local gains in 2018 and defending McAdams is what it is all about. However, like the Republicans, the state party found itself $70,000 in debt after the midterms. This has prevented them from hiring staff and recruiting and training candidates. There is also a battle over ideology in the state Democrat party as many have expressed dismay with the national party’s far Left tilt.
Although Democrat state party officials are happy to have a talking point against Trump regarding impeachment, they likewise understand that the only person who could move the needle that could result in Democrat gains is, ironically, Mitt Romney. His refusal and caginess in this area has led some Democrats to dismiss Romney as ineffectual and not influential. Perhaps he is a “Democrat secret asset” after all. Regardless, Democrats also point to the fact that Trump was the first Republican running for President NOT to gain a majority of the vote in a very long time.
Besides the McAdams victory for the Democrats in 2018, two other items of interest from those midterms in Utah may be foretelling of the future electorate, demographics and the influx of liberals fleeing liberal states for the low taxes, job opportunities and natural beauty of Utah. In that year, voters approved two progressive policy agenda items through ballot initiatives: the expansion of Medicaid and legalization of medical marijuana.