Some Utah Democrats and independents are switching parties to vote in the GOP primary

Jim Dabakis — the liberal former Utah senator who once filmed himself eating an edible marijuana product in Nevada on Facebook Live and another time mockingly vowed to amend a bill to name a frontage road after President Donald Trump to “Stormy Daniels rampway” — registered as a Republican for the first time in his life last week.

The 66-year-old isn’t having an identity crisis. And he hasn’t changed his iconoclastic views.

Instead, Dabakis says the party change is a strategic move to ensure his voice is heard in the upcoming gubernatorial primary race, in which only registered Republicans can vote. And he’s encouraging his 63,000 weekly email subscribers, 32,000 Facebook fans and 9,500 Twitter followers to join him.

“I think if non-Republicans want to have participation in the state" — which is overwhelmingly Republican — "they might have to do the unthinkable and play within a rigged system,” he said in an interview.

Another influential Democrat, developer Kem Gardner, expressed a similar view in a recent Tribune op-ed, arguing that the real election for governor is June 30, not Nov. 3. “I’ll be changing my registration to make sure I have a say in who our next governor is and I encourage you to do the same,” he wrote. (As of Thursday, he remained a registered Democrat).

Every major election year sees some unaffiliated or otherwise affiliated Utahns briefly dabble under the Republican Party umbrella in an effort to elect the more moderate conservatives on the ballot.

Justin Lee, director of elections in the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office, says there’s no solid data on the number of people who switch parties for the primary and switch back. But there’s nothing he sees indicating there’s a “significant swing” from one party to another as part of a political strategy.

“We’ve never seen anything to make us think it happens in large numbers,” he said, but noted that registrations do tend to go up in both major parties as an election draws nearer.

As of Wednesday afternoon, numbers from the state election’s office showed there are 721,651 active Republican voters, 485,461 unaffiliated voters and 220,062 Democratic voters.

Since the end of last year, Republicans have picked up 46,446 new party members, elections data showed. At the same time, the number of Democrats has increased by 29,927 while the unaffiliated category has lost 22,670 people.

[Election 2020: Where Utah’s gubernatorial candidates stand on a variety of issues]

Switching sides

While it may not happen in droves, dozens of Utahns told The Salt Lake Tribune they’re considering or planning on changing their affiliation to Republican this year — a move that for many of them means aligning themselves with a party that doesn’t match their own ideological values and beliefs.

“I’m pretty opposed to being associated with the Republican Party and I initially was like, ‘I’m not going to do it,’” said Josh Breitbach, a 25-year-old unaffiliated voter who lives in Midvale. “But I saw a post on Facebook by Jim Dabakis and he was urging people to switch their affiliation and that kind of made me give it a second thought. If my vote might make a difference," it’s worth it.

He plans to vote for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who’s seen as one of the more moderate candidates in the race. The other candidates are Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.

Ryan Williams, an independent voter who has been involved in the Democratic Party, made the decision to join the Republican Party after he received a notice in the mail from the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office asking him which ballot he wanted to receive.

There were hardly any primary races on the Democratic side, he noticed, while the Republican voters got to weigh in on the attorney general’s race and governor’s contest, as well as a handful of local elections.

“Seeing it on paper like that, it really just kind of … it was striking how left out you are if you’re not voting on the Republican ballot in this state,” said Williams, a 32-year-old Salt Lake City resident. For him, “it just makes sense strategically” to switch.

Williams said he’ll likely vote for Cox but may switch to Huntsman depending on which vote appears to be more strategic to block Hughes, whom he sees as more conservative, from winning the nomination.

Political opportunists?

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown said he’s opposed to this kind of party hopping, which he believes shows a “lack of integrity” on behalf of those who do it.

“If a politician were to switch parties because it’s politically expedient, I think any reputable news source or the voters as a whole would excoriate them, they would call it a lack of integrity, they would call it political expediency and I think they would be rightly criticized for that,” he said. “This is effectively the same thing but by a voter.”

For those who see swapping affiliations as the only way to participate in Utah’s democratic process in a meaningful way, Brown suggests they put more effort into building their own parties.

“I think the best approach when your own party is not influential is to work with your party, help your party be strengthened and help your party find candidates who are effective and able to lead,” he said. “That is the best approach. It’s not to abandon your own party.”

While some independent and Democratic voters have opted to register as Republicans for the upcoming race, there are others who say they’d never consider making such a move, no matter how strategic it might appear.

Rich Love, a 65-year-old Holladay resident and a registered Democrat, says he understands the logic behind registering as a Republican and would absolutely vote in their primary if the party held an open election.

Both of his brothers and their wives have opted to make the switch, he said, but Love and his close family members are not willing to “pretend to be something we’re not,” he said.

“Even though the Democrats have an open primary, I think it’s wrong when the Republicans vote to choose the weakest Democratic candidate. I don’t like it. For me, it’s not the right thing to do,” Love said in an interview. “I don’t blame others, but for me and my wife and my daughter, we’ve chosen to just stay as Democrats.”

Kim Barbushev, a 35-year-old Democrat who lives in Kearns, switched her party affiliation to Republican a few years ago when she lived in Idaho in 2011 and didn’t feel good about it afterward, she said.

“I felt like I was being kind of … ‘dishonest’ isn’t quite the right word, but I just felt gross about it because it was like, I have to switch my party to a party whose values I don’t believe in just to vote for someone I do believe in,” she said. “It just didn’t feel right to me.”

She doesn’t plan to switch affiliations for this race and will vote for Democrat Chris Peterson — who does not face a primary challenge — for governor in November.

Utah has not had a Democratic governor since 1985, and Republicans currently hold all of Utah’s statewide elected offices.

Dabakis, for his part, was coy about which of the four Republican candidates he’ll vote for in the upcoming primary race but said he feels the election is particularly important for a seat that hasn’t been open in Utah since 1992.

“Not enough has been made of what’s happening,” he said. “The future of the state of Utah for a generation or two is being decided because the philosophy, the budgeting, the important decisions of our time — the most important issues from education and pollution to our national parks and public lands to special interests and tax policy — they’re all going to be decided by the next governor.”

And while he says it’s been a “little uncomfortable” to identify as a Republican, for now, the former Democratic Party chairman said he wasn’t sure how soon he’ll switch his party affiliation back after the election is over.

“Who knows? Maybe I’ll feel really empowered and I’ll read the Republican platform and I’ll say, ‘Gee, I’ve been wrong all these years. I’m going to test the waters here,' ” he joked.

Voters who want to check on their party affiliation or change it can do so at vote.utah.gov by June 19, which is also the deadline to register to vote. Ballots will be mailed out June 9, three weeks before the primary election on June 30.

Unaffiliated voters still can register as a Republican through Election Day, though not online, said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.