New United Utah Party grows slowly, even as disapproval of GOP, Dems is high

Midvale • The fledgling United Utah Party set up 50 chairs Saturday in the lunchroom of Midvale Middle School for its Salt Lake County convention. It was a close guess: 47 adults showed up, plus four children — a far cry from the sports arenas and convention halls filled by GOP and Democratic conventions.

The UUP also has only 1,787 registered members statewide, a minuscule 0.11% of all Utah voters.

That shows Utahns are not exactly flocking to the party formed two years ago by disaffected Republicans and Democrats aiming to attract people who are upset with the extreme right or left — even as Utah polls show high disapproval for President Donald Trump and frustration with an uber partisan Congress.

While optimism still reigns with leaders of the party that likes to call its members “uniters,” they acknowledge real success may be years away at best — saying it is difficult to overcome a belief that third parties cannot win, and complain that the system is stacked against third parties.

UUP State Chairman Richard Davis, a Brigham Young University political science professor and a former chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party, says his new party actually is doing better than its tiny registration numbers or convention attendance suggest, and he foresees better performances coming.

“I think the real measure for us is how we do on the ballot. In 2018, we had 18 candidates run for offices from Congress to county council, and they averaged about 10% of the vote each” — attracting support well beyond its registered numbers, he said.

The best performance was by Draper City Council member Michele Weeks, who ran unsuccessfully for the Utah House but gained 39% in a race against a Republican with no Democrat in the race.

“I used to like to tell everybody I was the most successful third-party candidate in Utah history,” said Jim Bennett, the UUP nominee who won 9.3% of the vote in a special 2017 congressional race won by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, after former GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The United Utah Party has their Salt Lake County convention at Midvale Middle School in Midvale on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. The 2-year-old party hoped to attract people upset with the extreme right and left.

“That’s not true anymore because Eric Eliason ran last cycle [against Rep. Rob Bishop], and he did better” winning 11.6%, said Bennett, the son and one-time campaign manager of the late GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and grandson of former GOP Sen. Wallace F. Bennett.

Davis and Bennett both find such performances promising. But Davis says they still are not good enough yet to stop a belief among many Utahns that a third party just cannot win here and voting for them is throwing away a vote.

“We have to start winning elections,” agrees Bennett, who often acts as a party spokesman.

Until then, he says many Utahns also see no reason to register as members of the UUP — especially because it allows even nonmembers to participate in its functions. Republicans, in contrast, allow only registered party members to participate in its primaries and caucuses.

“Even members of my own family are not willing to register [with the UUP] because they lose access to voting in [GOP] primaries,” which often are the real races for many offices in heavily Republican Utah, Bennett said. “It’s true of even my wife,” whom he says votes for every UUP candidate she can in the general election — but still wants to vote in GOP primaries.

Davis adds that the current system makes it hard for third parties to win by usually having districts that elect one person in winner-take-all style, meaning a party must win by a majority or large plurality.

In contrast in Europe, larger districts may elect perhaps 20 legislative members. That allows new parties to win a seat with perhaps as little as 5% of the vote. “The single-member district and winner-take-all electoral system is intended to gravitate power into the major parties,” he said.

He adds the party had to sue its way onto the ballot in 2017 because Utah law made no provision for a new party to qualify for a special congressional election.

Still, Davis sees big opportunities now for a moderate third party here now.

“In Utah, we don’t have two major parties. We sort of have one and a quarter,” he said, with a weak Democratic Party.

“It’s an opportunity for us because Democrats just give up on a bunch of races throughout the state and don’t run anybody,” Davis said. “In others, they are just a name on the ballot and they’re not even intending to be competitive.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The United Utah Party has their Salt Lake County convention at Midvale Middle School in Midvale on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. The 2-year-old party hoped to attract people upset with the extreme right and left.

The UUP especially targets such races.

“There's an opportunity for us to actually become the second party or one of two second parties fairly quickly” if the UUP can get over the hump by winning a few races and proving a vote for it is not wasted, Davis said.

Next year could be the year it happens, he adds. “It looks like that Donald Trump is going to be on the ballot again as the Republican and he’s not very popular in Utah. And I doubt there’s anyone on the Democratic side who’s going to capitalize on that in Utah.”

He says disappointment in the major parties could trickle down into other races and help the UUP win.

He notes that in 2016, independent Evan McMullin won 21.5% of the Utah presidential vote — so many Utahns already are willing to vote for someone not in a major party.

McMullin is said to be considering a run for Congress in Utah against GOP Rep. Chris Stewart, perhaps as an independent or as a UUP member. The UUP is holding a fundraising dinner on Wednesday where it will honor McMullin for efforts to bring people together in politics.

Davis said the UUP has made it known that it would love to have McMullin as a candidate. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but he has not indicated to date that he’s going to do that. We’ll see.”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin speaks during a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City on Oct. 12, 2016.

The UUP has also tried to raise its visibility by collecting signatures to put a voter referendum on the ballot to limit terms in Utah.

Bennett is optimistic because the party is positioning itself in the middle of the political spectrum, where most available votes are. “The other third parties are designed for people who think the Republicans just aren’t extreme enough, or the Democrats are not extreme enough. There aren’t many votes there.”

Davis said, “I’m optimistic that all those kinds of forces are going to propel people towards some alternative, and hopefully that’d be us.”

Bennett said people often ask him if the party is done yet. “We recognize it’s an uphill battle. We recognize that it will take a while to break through. But we are in this for the long haul.”