Five candidates line up to lead the Utah Republican Party

Field includes former Salt Lake County GOP boss who resigned following harassment allegations and a candidate hoping to become the first woman elected to a full term in the post.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Delegates stand with hands over hearts during the national anthem at the Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem. Five candidates filed to be the new chair of the GOP by Thursday's deadline, with the winner to be elected at the May 1 state party convention.

Four men and one woman are vying to take the reins of the Utah Republican Party as current chair Derek Brown is stepping aside after a single two-year term.

Leading Utah’s dominant political party for the next two years seems like a plum assignment, but there are some difficult challenges facing its next leader. Those include the seemingly endless fight over whether candidates should be allowed to gather signatures to secure a place on the primary ballot, bypassing the traditional caucus and convention path. Utah is unique in that the party takes an active role in selecting candidates, whereas most other state parties merely provide support for those hopefuls.

The candidates for chair include current Utah County GOP chair Stuart Peay and former congressional candidates Carson Jorgensen and Tina Cannon. Former Salt Lake County Republican chair Scott Miller is still in the race even though he resigned from his county party leadership spot last weekend following allegations he ignored and dismissed multiple complaints of harassment and bullying behavior by his communications director.

Also in the running is political neophyte Brad Baker.

Peay said he thinks the best way for the Utah GOP to get past the long-simmering war over the signature path is to make the caucus system more user-friendly. He proposes holding the biennial neighbohood mass meetings on a weekend instead of a weekday night.

“We need to make the caucus more accessible. I saw how Nevada holds their caucuses on Saturday morning and it was striking how many couples were there together,” explained Peay. “At that time, you get more people there and get more women involved.”

Peay is taking an unusual approach with his campaign, running on a sort of joint ticket with Austin Cox, who is vying to be vice-chair. Cox managed Spencer Cox’s winning campaign for governor in 2020 and previously worked on the “Save our Schools” initiative. Peay also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2017 when Jason Chaffetz unexpectedly resigned.

“He and I possess complementary talents,” said Peay. “My managerial experience melds with his campaign experience.”

Jorgensen, who challenged Rep. Chris Stewart for the GOP nomination in 2020, is a small business owner whose family has been ranching in the state for six generations. Jorgensen is a solid supporter of the caucus and convention and says he’s no fan of candidates using signatures to get on the ballot.

“My dad had a signature gatherer come to his door last year working for six separate candidates. That’s a bad way to do politics. We’re not vetting those candidates anymore and only those with money are allowed to play,” Jorgensen said.

He predicted there probably won’t be any resolution to the caucus vs. signature fight until the issue gets on the ballot, adding there needs to be a “serious discussion” about taking it to a statewide vote.

Scott Miller did not drop his bid for party chair despite criticism from some — including the governor and several Salt Lake County Republican legislators — over his handling of the county party allegations. That included an email he sent to party delegates and others denigrating the women who stepped forward with complaints and questioning their motives. He later apologized.

Miller did not respond to an email question about why he is remaining in the race, but did say the successes the county party enjoyed during the last election cycle would translate well to the state level.

Republicans won three county council races to secure a veto-proof majority on the body.

“We determined that with great messaging, disciplined candidates, and great volunteers, not only can we win important races, but we can expand our voting base and expand our conservative tent,” said Miller.

Tina Cannon, the sole woman in the race to lead the party, was among a dozen Republicans who sought to replace former Rep. Rob Bishop in Congress after he decided to retire. That race was eventually won by Blake Moore. Cannon, a former member of the Morgan County Council, did not respond to an interview request Thursday.

Only one woman has ever served as the chair of the Utah Republican Party. Enid Mickelson was selected as interim chair in 2007 after former chair Joe Cannon resigned.

The final candidate is 23-year-old student Brad Baker, who lists a brief gig as a volunteer for Spencer Cox’s campaign last year as his only political experience.

“I don’t have much in the way of political experience, but I want to bring some good ideas to the table and I want to make some positive change,” he said.

Baker acknowledged his youth and inexperience may lead to a dismissive attitude towards him, but he remains undaunted.

“I fully expect to be dismissed,” laughed Baker. “If I were in their position I would be skeptical of me. But this is something I’m passionate about.”

In other party leadership races, Ryan Davis and Jordan Hess, a former aide to Sen. Mike Lee, are running for vice chair; party secretary candidates include Olivia Horlacher and current Secretary Kendra Seeley; and current treasurer Mike Bird is running uncontested for reelection.

The party’s approximately 2,500 delegates will select the next chair at the party convention on May 1 at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.