Utah’s caucus-goers report low turnout. But who or what is to blame?

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democrats in District 39 attend the Democratic Party neighborhood caucus meeting at Kennedy Junior High School in West Valley City Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

For Utah Democrats, no candidate this year had the pull Bernie Sanders did two years ago. But that was expected.

Republicans, too, didn’t flock to their caucuses the way they did when they turned out to pick Ted Cruz over Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential primary contest.

Party leaders weren’t surprised by a significant drop-off from a presidential to a midterm election year. But there was a perception among prominent party members that, even by off-year standards, caucus turnout was lower Tuesday night than in past years amid continued infighting in the GOP and few big-ticket races that drove participation in past years.

Utah Republican Chairman Rob Anderson said while the party expected turnout to be about half of that two years ago, early figures put it at about a third, or about 10 to 15 percentage points lower than in typical midterm years.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox battled southbound traffic from the Capitol to his caucus meeting in Sanpete County after work. He ended up being one of nine people who showed up.

“The good news is I made it. Bad news is smallest turnout in my caucus ever. By far,” Cox wrote on Twitter. “We don’t even have enough to fill our 11 county delegates.”

Both parties were still tallying statewide participation Wednesday as they prepare for a November election with an open U.S. Senate seat, several possible high-profile ballot initiatives and at least one tight U.S. House race.

Democrats said they didn’t expect to see a dip from other midterm years. Among the Republican Party, however, at least perceived low turnout has led to introspection.

“Tonight makes clear that for all the lofty rhetoric so many use to extol the virtues of the caucus system, the reality is rather rough and in need of some serious changes,” Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian group Libertas Institute, wrote shortly after running his precinct caucus. “It ultimately boils down to overall apathy. People just don’t care.”

The GOP is weathering a yearslong battle over a 2014 law, known as SB54, that allows candidates to reach the primary ballot by collecting signatures from registered voters or by going through the caucus to elect delegates to a convention where candidates are selected.

Those willing to volunteer their time in Utah’s caucus process met just hours after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. It was the second loss in federal court for the Republican insiders driving the legal battle.

Some Republicans said the ruling and low turnout at several caucus meetings were signals the party should embrace the law and unify after years of fighting itself.

“There’s this ideal that you’ve got these debates about who’s going to represent the precinct and what are our values,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “It’s not like that in most precincts.”

Others backing the fight against SB54 said the group within the party that’s moved on from the battle, including Anderson, Weiler and others, has caused apathy.

“The public is just fed up,” said Teena Horlacher, chairwoman of the Davis County Republican Party. “They’re like, ‘forget it.’ That’s the reason. They’re not [not] coming out because they don’t believe in the caucus. They’re not coming out because they’re just so fed up with the lies.”

Horlacher also noted there were pockets with normal or even high turnout.

The night saw some Republican districts, including in Davis County, choosing to allow signature-gathering by an initiative that would get rid of SB54, but blocking other initiative efforts.

“They’re going to say that other people in a public building and public forum you cannot exercise your First Amendment rights to collect signatures,” Weiler said. “It was astounding.”

Horlacher, who sought to enforce the ban in Davis County, said it was an attempt to keep the focus on the caucus system and defend it.

“At a few of the caucuses where they were gathering signatures, it was more like a signature-gathering night than a caucus night,” Horlacher said. “It wasn’t that way at our caucus. We were there focused on electing delegates. That’s the purpose of caucuses.”