All four of the candidates vying to lead the Utah Republican Party say it’s time to set aside entrenched hostilities that have divided the party and get back to the business of electing conservatives.
But while unity is a shared goal, attendees to the party’s organizing convention next month will hear from candidates who have many differences in tone and approach. The options include a former state lawmaker, a prominent conservative crusader, a relative newcomer to the state who founded the party’s Veterans Caucus and a former member of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square who, if elected, would be the first woman elected to a full term to lead the dominant political party in the Beehive State.
Looming large over the May 4 election is the Utah Republican Party’s reaction to SB54, a 2014 law allowing candidates for partisan office to qualify for a primary by either gathering voter signatures or by earning the support of party delegates at a caucus or convention.
Supporters of the traditional caucus system have relentlessly pushed legal challenges against the state — most of which were unsuccessful — and later sparred with the current, outgoing party chairman, Rob Anderson, over his decision to ignore an attempt to kick out the party candidates who gather signatures.
Republicans also hope to rebound from a bruising 2018 election that saw the party’s hold on the state Legislature slip a bit, a near wipeout in Salt Lake County offices, and the loss of a congressional seat to Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams.
But outreach to new voters potentially runs up against the party’s platform, which affirms a belief in God, promotes the traditional family, and calls for the suspension of birthright citizenship.
Here’s a look at these four candidates and what they’d like to do if given the chance to lead Utah’s Republican Party.
Brown made the decision to run for chairman in the days following the 2019 legislative session in March. That decision meant postponing vacation plans he had made with his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary.
“She’s supportive, but with some reservation,” Brown said. “That was not me scoring points with my wife.”
Brown, a native of Salt Lake City who grew up in the Sugar House area, has long been involved with the Utah Republican Party, from serving as a delegate and working on campaigns to holding office in the state Legislature from 2011 until his departure in 2014 to be deputy chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Mike Lee.
He said the past few years have seen intraparty disagreements on issues that, while important, have weakened Republican representation in Utah.
“As a party," Brown said, “we’ve taken our eye off the ball and focused on things other than winning elections.”
While Republicans split on whether to fight or accept SB54, Brown said there’s a general agreement that the caucus system has value and should be strengthened.
If elected chairman, he said he’d like to “modernize” caucuses — possibly using technology to facilitate remote voting — and make it the preferred route to reach a primary election.
“One of the strengths of the caucus process, I believe, is that it makes for stronger candidates,” Brown said, “because it connects them with the most active and engaged voters in their areas.”
Brown, an attorney and lobbyist, said his primary goals are to promote unity and to recruit new Republican voters. He said conservative principles — like limited government and individual liberty — are best for the vulnerable members of society, and the party can do a better job of promoting that message.
“There are thousands of people who have unregistered as Republicans in the last few years,” he said. “My goal is to reach out to people and give them a reason to be Republican. And that includes, specifically, younger voters and college-age voters.”
Miera-Fisk traces her Utah roots to before the 1847 arrival of settlers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her ancestor is Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a cartographer with the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 through then-unexplored areas in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
“He didn’t settle here,” Miera-Fisk said. “But he’s part of Utah history."
Miera-Fisk was an 18-year member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — since renamed as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square — and is now the owner of a company, Fisk Productions, with her husband.
And while she has long participated in the Republican Party through voting and attending caucus meetings, it was the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 — and particularly his stance on drug enforcement and crime reduction — that put her on a path to run for chairwoman.
“I am involved in politics because of my support for President Trump,” she said. “I campaigned for him, I worked hard to get him elected. And this is a continuation. This is something that I am determined to see through — the reelection of our president.”
Among Utah Republicans, Trump’s presidency has been divisive. Trump earned 46 percent of the Utah vote in 2016, an atypically low share for a Republican presidential candidate, and high-profile members of the party — including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — have criticized some of Trump’s policies and public statements.
Miera-Fisk said she understands there are differences of opinion on the president, but she’s firm in her support and hopes to show others how effective Trump has been. She also criticized Romney for using his money and “big name” to get elected, and said party members have been disappointed with his criticism of the president.
In her interview with The Tribune, Miera-Fisk was frequently critical of what she described as “elitism” within the Utah Republican Party. The party has never been led by a woman, she pointed out (although Enid Mickelsen served that role for a partial term). And she described as “a disaster” a recent Latino town hall hosted by the party that drew criticism for failing to include any people of color, like herself.
“I feel the elitism in the Republican Party and I don’t like it,” she said. “I find it hypocritical.”
Miera-Fisk said she’d like to see the party recommit to its platform — which has, among its planks, a section lauding ethnic diversity — and that she’d approach the position of chairwoman as a full-time job.
And while she personally supports the traditional caucus system, she said the lawsuits challenging SB54 created a divide within the party and cannot continue.
“We can’t let a small, noisy, disruptive group lead that fight," she said. "We have to stand up and be strong together.”
Instead of fighting SB54, she said organization, preparation and communication will help good candidates get their name out so that the signature path is unnecessary.
She said she’d like to tell the warring factions in the signature-versus-caucus fight to “knock it off," and that everyone in the party needs to take responsibility for the messes Utah Republicans are facing.
Chadwick H. Fairbanks III
In 2010, Illinois native Chadwick Fairbanks III made his first visit to Utah for military training and was “blown away” by the cleanliness, booming economy and friendly residents. Within two years he had relocated his family here.
“Visiting a place like Utah was like a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Fairbanks said he’s been motivated to be more involved after leaving active military service and working for the government as a contractor.
He launched the Utah Republican Party’s Veterans Caucus last year and has twice run for Congress in Utah’s 1st District, first in 2016 as an unaffiliated candidate and again in 2018 as a Republican challenger to incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
He works as a business consultant based out of Park City, and said he was motivated to run for chairman after conducting a poll of Republican delegates that showed widespread frustration with the ongoing battle over SB54, and skepticism of lobbyists and special interest groups influencing the party and state government.
“The overarching sentiment was that the party needed to end its civil war,” Fairbanks said. “The SB54 fight has really created a stark dichotomy in the party and things have kind of ground to a standstill.”
Fairbanks said the party infighting and ensuing fundraising drought hurt Republican candidates during the 2018 election. And his priorities, if elected, would be a focus on bringing new money into the party — and paying off outstanding debts — updating voter data and reaching out to new residents so the state organization can play a larger supporting role in the 2020 elections.
“It’s not impossible for Utah to go blue some day,” Fairbanks said. “I think Republicans — conservative, Mormon Utahns — they don’t realize that’s a possibility that’s on the horizon if the Republican Party doesn’t change its current mode of operation.”
Fairbanks said he’d also create an advisory committee on SB54 to negotiate a compromise and move beyond that issue, adding that conservatives who want to continue fighting to restore the traditional caucus system should take those efforts outside the party to the state Legislature.
“As far as the party is concerned, we’re done with it," he said. "It’s over, SB54 is the law.”
Few Utahns are as personally associated with the fight over SB54 as Phill Wright, a vocal proponent of the caucus system who has fought the dual-path and signature routes from both within the party, as a member of the Republican Party’s governing State Central Committee, and without, as executive director of Keep My Voice.
Wright was among the committee members who authorized lawsuits against the state and pushed a party bylaw that could have stripped candidates of their Republican membership for gathering signatures. And with Keep My Voice, he was part of a successful effort to impede Count My Vote — the group that catalyzed SB54 — from qualifying its ballot initiative that may have seen the dual path ratified through a public vote.
“I would rather be known as the guy who stood for something,” Wright said, “than the guy who sat through everything."
Now, the former Utah Republican Party vice chairman says that while he’ll continue to encourage the repeal of SB54, he will not lead any fight against signature candidates or encourage the party to launch new litigation.
“I will treat every candidate fairly,” Wright said, “regardless of how they make it to a primary.”
Wright ran for chairman two years ago, losing to Anderson. But Wright said he has always been appreciative of the individuals who serve in party leadership, describing it as a thankless but necessary role.
He said the party should never assume a candidate is safe, pointing to McAdams’ narrow defeat of Mia Love in 2018 after two terms in Congress. The party dropped the ball in that race, Wright said, compounded by low voter turnout in Utah County that may have been exacerbated by long lines at a limited number of polling locations.
“The party has done a very poor job getting its message out,” Wright said. “It’s done a poor job supporting its candidates across the state.”
Wright said the Utah Republican Party is at a crossroads, but is not necessarily falling apart. Republicans are unified in their support for the party platform, he said, and promoting those principles is key to healing divisions, expanding the party base and moving forward after years of fighting over SB54.
He also said he hopes to work with teenage and college Republican organizations to counteract what he described as “indoctrination” at universities.
“We need to help encourage them and remind them that they are here today because of capitalism," Wright said, “and socialism kills, as we’ve seen in other countries around the world.”
He said he welcomes debate and conversation, but emphasized that any changes should come from within the organization, rather than a reaction to outside pressures.
“I relate it to people joining a church," Wright said. “If you join a church, you’re joining that church because you agree with their doctrine — we’ll call that their platform. And if you agree with their platform you align with them, you become part of that organization. I feel it’s the same way with politics.”