What will Utah’s Republican Party look like after Trump? Two local leaders weigh in.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this July 15, 2020, file photo, Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge tells residents that they are doing in crowding into a room without proper social distancing and masks is exactly what they were not supposed to be doing to protect the public health. Ainge was among the handful of Utah Republican leaders who called for an end to "the circus" of crying fraud in the presidential election. Utah County's top election official, though, said allowing the legal challenges and investigations to play out in their own time is the best way to put suspicion and distrust to rest.

In the anxiety-inducing din of election discussions online — some following the lead of President Donald Trump in alleging voter fraud, others calling on Americans to accept that Joe Biden is president-elect — one Utah County leader weighed in this week with a message for his fellow Republicans.

“Are we ready for the circus to stop and the post-Trump @GOP era to begin?” County Commissioner Tanner Ainge tweeted Tuesday. “Whether you’ve felt that for 4 years or 4 seconds — let’s make sure conservative policies have a more honest, principled, positive voice moving forward.”

As an example of the “circus,” Ainge included screen captures of prominent Republican leaders having social media posts removed or flagged for spreading conspiracy theories and unsupported claims about Trump losing the election.

It was a bold move, to so openly criticize members of one’s own party, including its leader. Ainge had other salty tweets this week. One included a clip showing conservative pundits knocking Democrats for refusing to accept the 2016 election results, in an apparent display of hypocrisy.

“If becoming educated on issues and facts is like eating your vegetables," Ainge wrote, “watching these type of shows is like eating [______].”

A different view

Another Utah County elected official weighed in, implying that the time to move on and accept election results had not yet come.

“The BEST thing or ALL people is for claims of fraud to be investigated and resolved,” Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner tweeted in a six-part response to Ainge’s post. “The ONLY way for people to have confidence in election results is to have complete transparency and let the process work.”

The exchange appeared to echo a divide among the Utah GOP that’s become a lot more apparent since Election Day. Mitt Romney was the first sitting Republican senator to congratulate the President-elect Biden on his victory. But Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee, refused to acknowledge the Democrat had won. Gov.-elect Spencer Cox praised Biden for his unifying message Saturday, the day the presidential race was called.

Meanwhile, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was sniffing around Nevada in an attempt to find evidence of “voting irregularities.” He later said there was evidence, although he provided no specifics, and his Democratic Nevada counterpart questioned why Reyes was straying outside of his own jurisdiction.

But both Ainge and Gardner said in separate interviews that Utah’s GOP wasn’t as divided as their contradictory messages implied. In the post-Trump era, they said, Utah can even lead the way in healing a polarized nation.

“The [future of] the party in Utah depends a lot more on the leaders in Utah and less on Trump and national rhetoric,” Gardner said, praising the state’s GOP chair, Derek Brown. “He has done a phenomenal job of unifying the party in Utah, where we can disagree on an issue but we’re still more unified.”

Ainge added that Utah Republican leaders have already set an example for the nation by welcoming refugees and minorities and by not engaging in the immigration and anti-Muslim messages coming from Trump’s White House.

“The vast majority in our party, if they’re being honest," Ainge said, “would agree that Donald Trump is not the North Star in guiding Republican values.”

Elections take weeks

Regarding their disagreement on Twitter, Gardner praised Ainge’s leadership in Utah County but said she felt compelled to offer perspective on how complicated elections can be.

“There’s a lot of misconception among people, elected or otherwise, that elections take a day. I want people to know that elections always take weeks,” she said. “I think if people know that elections always take this long, it helps them have more confidence in the results.”

Gardner added that her office looks into every claim of voter fraud, but they almost always turn out to be nothing. A college student didn’t realize he had also registered to vote when he signed a petition. An elderly woman forgot she mailed in a ballot and then showed up to vote on Election Day. A resident received two ballots, only to realize the second one was mailed when he changed his address and the first one had already been “spoiled” or canceled.

“It is an exhausting task,” to investigate every case, Gardner said, but “election integrity takes a lot of effort.”

Ainge said his criticism of the president and other high-profile Republicans has nothing to do with election security, however.

“I would not have the same criticisms if the president said, ‘Hey, we are looking into the details and all of the close races; we have to go through the process,’” Ainge said. “I 100% support that effort. But using the words ‘rigged’ and ‘stolen’ is dangerous. And it’s an embarrassment.”

Gardner concedes that the number of people alleging fraud is on the rise, partly due to social media and partly due to Trump. She said she saw more people both mailing in ballots and showing up at the polls to vote in person this year.

“They were worried their vote wasn’t going to count because of things the president was saying,” Gardner said. “I don’t have data to give you, but I feel we spent a lot more time investigating voter fraud than we have in the past.”

That’s why whenever she sees someone getting “antsy” about election results, whether on Twitter or somewhere else, she feels the need to respond. Gardner said she has worked hard to rebuild the reputation of the clerk’s office, which once was laden with errors and delays (Gov. Gary Herbert previously described the office as the “epicenter of dysfunction”).

In one case, her predecessor accidentally mailed out tens of thousands of GOP primary ballots to voters who weren’t registered with the party. Given that circumstance, Gardner said she could understand why Reyes went to Nevada to investigate fraud.

“It would be difficult for me to say, ‘Oh, no, I’m confident there’s no fraud.’ Because I know what my office was like before,” Gardner said. “There were cracks that could get exploited if someone tried. I worked hard to fill those cracks.”

While certain election results remain tight in Utah, particularly the race between Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican challenger Burgess Owens in the 4th Congressional District, Ainge maintained that party leaders should have a clear message about the outcome of the presidential election to maintain voters' faith in democracy.

“I don’t expect everyone to have the same perspective I do," Ainge said, “but, at this point, the dangerous rhetoric of a rigged or stolen election is so important that everyone needs to get on board with a peaceful transition.”

The commissioner repeated the fact that Utah’s vocal Trump supporters, including Sen. Lee and Attorney General Reyes, publicly denounced the president before he was elected in 2016. As the clock ticks down on Trump’s final days in office, Ainge remained optimistic that all of the state’s Republicans would return to the party’s conservative, pre-Trump roots.

“A lot of conservatives felt the need to continue supporting the Republican president. That doesn’t mean his approach is what they wanted from the beginning,” Ainge said. “My hope is that as this transition begins, we can go back to that era and we actually find someone to carry the banner for the party who we feel is a great example of the values and principles of the party.”

The Beehive State, he said, remained a shining embodiment of those values — despite a tumultuous four years for the nation.

“In Utah, I think we have a unique message. Conservative polices are working,” Ainge said. “We’re leading in economic growth and employment. That’s lifting everyone up.”