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Utah Republican Party chair says he will not run for reelection

After one term as head of the state’s GOP, Derek Brown says it’s time for him to move on.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) State Republican Party Chair Derek Brown speaks at the GOP's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem, May 4, 2019. Brown is not seeking reelection to the post after serving a single two-year term.

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown has announced he will not run for a second term as the party’s leader, telling supporters that he wants to spend more time with his family and is ready ”to pass the baton.”

“Party leadership service, after all, is no different from public service. It is designed to be seasonal,” Brown wrote Tuesday to fellow party members. “You commit to serving 100% for a short season, wear yourself out in the process, and then pass the heavy baton to another who likewise feels that ‘subtle nudge’ to serve.”

Brown’s email boasted that during his two-year term, the party has managed to pay down its debt, raise more than $1 million, hold a virtual convention necessitated by the pandemic and reclaim the 4th Congressional District, which Republicans lost to Democrat Ben McAdams in 2018.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, the Republican who unseated McAdams last year, responded to Brown’s news with a tweet thanking him for his hard work, and Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, wrote that the GOP chair had “led the party during unprecedented times.”

When Brown was elected chair in 2019, the party was deeply in debt and scarred by years of legal battles and infighting over the state’s election laws. At the time, Brown said he would prioritize fundraising, party reunification and analyzing the prior year’s election losses to help conservative candidates regain their seats.

In an interview Tuesday, Brown recalled coming into the party offices after his election and finding there were no employees and that the phones had been disconnected for nonpayment. He’d entered the position thinking the party owed $100,000 but quickly discovered that the bills totaled about double that amount.

“I felt like we were starting a company from scratch. In fact it was worse than that, because we not only had no resources, we were actually in a six-figure hole,” he said. “We just didn’t know how big the hole was.”

Within a couple of months, the party was able to clear its debt, according to Brown.

Though he celebrates successes during his term, he says leadership changes are healthy for the party, noting that the role of chair is unpaid and demands significant time investments. His announcement comes about a month and a half before the state GOP convention, where party members will select a new chair, and he hopes his decision to bow out of the running will encourage a number of qualified candidates to step forward.

Brown’s predecessor, Rob Anderson, also declined to seek a second term leading the party after saying he didn’t think he was the right person to heal intraparty divides. Anderson’s time in office was particularly tumultuous for the Utah GOP, with hard-line supporters of the traditional caucus and convention system pushing lawsuits against a 2014 state law, SB54, that allows candidates to qualify for a party primary by collecting voter signatures.

Those disagreements surfaced again during this year’s legislative session, when Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, ran a bill that would’ve enabled the state GOP to eliminate the signature-gathering path for Republican candidates. Brown testified in support of the bill, which ultimately failed to win approval in the GOP-dominated state Senate.

Over the past two years, the state GOP has also fractured along the political fault lines that have divided Republicans nationwide — splitting over former President Donald Trump and his false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against him. Party members have also repeatedly attempted to censure Utah Sen. Mitt Romney for his vote to impeach Trump, although they’ve so far failed to garner enough support for the move within the state GOP.

Still, Brown says he thinks the Utah GOP is more cohesive now than when he assumed the role of party chair.

“What I’ve tried to do as the chair is show that the job of the party is to support the elected officials that the party chooses,” he said. “It’s not the party leaders’ job to censure them or to pick and choose among our favorites. ... What I’ve tried to do is create that space in the party for our elected officials to know that if they vote their conscience that they’ll still be supported.”

Last month as some party insiders again pushed for a Romney censure, the state GOP issued a statement supporting Romney and Sen. Mike Lee, who backed Trump and twice voted against his impeachment.

“The differences between our own Utah Republicans showcase a diversity of thought, in contrast to the danger of a party fixated on ‘unanimity of thought,’” the statement said.

Brown says party turmoil didn’t contribute to his decision to step aside.

In his email to supporters, he said many people have encouraged him to run again but indicated that he and his family have some “critical life events” coming up. Brown, who works as a Utah lobbyist in addition to serving as state party chair, said his family needs a father “with one full-time job — not two.”

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