Sylvia Haro was glued to her cellphone Jan. 6 as she watched live coverage of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters rallying in Washington, D.C., enraged by an election loss that many of them refused to accept.
She was nervous about how these Trump backers would react that day, Congress was gathering to certify Electoral College results and she had a sense that something of historical significance would happen. Still, the northern Utah resident says she could never have predicted the violence that would erupt — that the crowd would turn into a mob that would invade the U.S. Capitol, smash windows, assault police officers and defile the congressional chambers she had always viewed as sacred spaces. Five people died.
“I still have tears about it,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “It’s such a violation.”
Haro, who describes herself as a Reagan conservative, joined the GOP as soon as she became a U.S. citizen in 1995 and spent many years active in state politics, serving on the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly and running as a party delegate. But the Jan. 6 attack left her with little option but to renounce her GOP affiliation, she felt.
“I will not be part of that. That is disgusting,” Haro said. “I just don’t recognize the party. It’s not the Republican Party anymore. It’s a Trump party.”
The Utah GOP has lost more than 7,600 active members in the weeks since the U.S. Capitol invasion by rioters, some of whom say they were moved to action by Trump’s spurious claims that the election was rigged against him.
State election records also show decreases among other groups, with about 4,000 active voters leaving the unaffiliated category and about 830 people exiting the Democratic Party. But Utah Republicans experienced more than their share of the losses — accounting for 61% of the defections while only representing about half the state’s active voters.
Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah GOP, said he’s intent on convincing these people to return.
“As a party, one of my top priorities during the upcoming year will be to focus the Utah Republican Party and our messaging on the principles that unify us as a party,” he said in a statement. “If there are those that may have chosen to go elsewhere, my goal is to make sure that it is only a temporary relocation by reminding Utahns about those unifying principles and gently encouraging them to return.”
This voter trend in Utah matches what’s going on across the nation, as the GOP reckons with its party identity and tensions between traditional conservatives and Trump followers, explains Baodong Liu, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
“Utah is almost a perfect reflection of what’s going on in the nation,” he said. “It’s in the search mode for sure inside the Republican Party.”
Nationwide, the GOP has seen a wave of defections following the Capitol incursion, with the party’s membership dropping in key states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida, ABC News has reported. The same trend has also been reported in Utah’s neighboring states of Arizona and Colorado, both of which lost thousands of Republicans in the weeks after the riots.
David Magleby, a political science professor emeritus from Brigham Young University, said it’s not yet clear why voters in different parts of the nation are shedding their Republican affiliation, but these shifts in Utah and other states suggest that some Republicans do feel alienated from the party. And the departures, he said, could be a harbinger of a greater exodus to come if the GOP continues to drift from its traditional principles and further hardens into the party of Trump.
“There is a battle under way for the future of the Republican Party and a disquiet among what I will call conventional Republicans,” he said. “It’s unclear who’s going to prevail.”
Utah’s congressional delegation has cast a spotlight on this intraparty struggle, as Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens voted against the election results just hours after the storming of the Capitol while Sen. Mitt Romney condemned Trump for inciting an “insurrection.”
Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, argues that many conservatives in the state are frustrated that some of their congressional representatives have remained loyal to Trump and refuse to denounce the misinformation and conspiracy theories that fueled the Jan. 6 riot.
“It’s one thing to be a Republican,” he said. “It’s another to be an insurrectionist.”
Utah Democrats, he believes, might be able to win over disenfranchised Republicans with a message of civil discourse and a commitment to basic good government.
Liu said he’ll be interested to see where these ex-Republicans land and said they could drift back into the GOP fold if they can’t find a new home that better reflects their views. And he doesn’t see the Republican Party losing its dominance in Utah anytime soon.
However, many inside the GOP might increasingly distance themselves from Trump, according to Liu. There are already signs of a building Republican coalition against the former president’s political approach, he said, noting that Gov. Spencer Cox last year partnered with his Democratic rival to promote civility in the governor’s race and that Romney has spoken forcefully against misinformation promulgated by Trump and his supporters.
“I think inside Utah, there is a reasonably good amount of Republican members that are willing to reconsider their previous support of Trump,” he said. “I think it is very critical that the Republican Party has a national leader that can accommodate the Republican members that are not satisfied with how the country has come to this point, especially the Jan. 6 riot that shocked Utah but also the world.”
Trump might not be the only factor in the recent party affiliation changes, though, Magleby said.
For instance, a number of people affiliated with the GOP last year so they could vote for a Republican nominee for governor. High-profile Democrats such as former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and businessman Kem Gardner were among those who encouraged party-switching ahead of the closed gubernatorial primary, and Magleby wonders if some of these voters are leaving the GOP and returning to their parties of origin now that the election season is behind them.
Haro was one of these party switchers.
She’d taken a break from the GOP in 2016 after Trump became the party nominee because she objected to his inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and because she didn’t think he was morally fit to become the nation’s commander-in-chief. She came back to the GOP so she could vote in last year’s gubernatorial primary.
Now, Haro says, she might just be gone for good, and she’s encouraging other people to follow her.
“Leave the party,” she tells them, “Because otherwise we’re going to lose it.”