When Kathleen Anderson read news of bullying and harassment aimed at Republican women over Salt Lake County’s latest election cycle, she was surprised no female candidates joined the race to become the next party chair. So she decided to file her candidacy with only moments to spare.
“I got my application in about five minutes before the deadline,” she said.
The county Republican Party will select new leadership at its annual convention on Saturday. Anderson and the two other candidates for party chair — Chris Null and Andrew Langford — all expressed disappointment after learning of a toxic culture that existed in the county GOP over recent months.
Multiple women came forward to share stories about the party’s volunteer communications director, Dave Robinson, who called them belittling nicknames, issued threats and used inappropriate language. He also controlled candidate website access and other resources, sometimes using it as leverage for them to campaign on his pet issues, the women alleged. They turned to the party’s chair, Scott Miller, for help, but said he was either dismissive or defended Robinson’s behavior.
Miller sent a lengthy email disparaging and attempting to discredit the women who came forward shortly after meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune late last month to discuss the complaints. He resigned as county party chair less than 24 hours after The Tribune’s story published. He is still running to become the state Republican Party chair.
Now all three candidates looking to take Miller’s place in the county party say they want to set a new tone, including Anderson.
“I was watching the response to [the allegations] on social media, how people want to continue to encourage women to be involved. When I saw no one else put their name forward, I felt we’re still pioneering in some respects as women here in the state,” said Anderson, a Millcreek resident. “Why did I throw my hat in the ring? I don’t know. I was disappointed no [other women] did.”
Last year, Anderson was one of seven Republican candidates running for the 4th Congressional District seat ultimately won by Burgess Owens. She campaigned as a “conservative,” an “outsider” and “not a politician.” That race is also where Anderson experienced firsthand how divisive politics has become, she said.
“I just believe that we should just respect each other more,” Anderson said. “If you want people to be better or treat you better, is that what you’re projecting yourself? Is that what you’re putting out there? I’m committed to doing and being that.”
She said negative rhetoric has driven many Americans away from participating in politics on both sides of the aisle. If elected party chair, Anderson said she wants to improve Republican election turnout. Running a conservative challenger in the nonpartisan Salt Lake City mayor’s race against Erin Mendenhall in 2023 will be among her priorities.
“We haven’t had a conservative mayor of Salt Lake City since the 1970s,” Anderson said. “Why aren’t we at least putting forward a candidate?”
One of the most contentious issues facing Utah’s Republicans is the candidate nomination process. The Utah Legislature created a signature-gathering pathway in 2014 as a compromise to stem off a grassroots effort to eliminate the traditional caucus-convention system in favor of an open primary.
Lawmakers have attempted to repeal the signature-gathering path multiple times in the years since.
“Any candidate who is gathering signatures themselves ... that is a lot of work, and I don’t think it gets more grassroots effort than that,” Anderson said. “I don’t see it going away.”
But for those who continue to take issue with the signature-gathering option, Anderson said the party can work to make the traditional convention system more appealing to more people.
“That is something I would absolutely explore as a county chair,” she said. “How can we improve the caucus-convention process so we have fewer candidates in a primary?”
Langford, a political newcomer, gained most of his campaign experience from working as a canvasser for Trent Stagg’s unsuccessful 2020 bid to defeat Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. Langford moved to Salt Lake County in 2018 and decided to run for chair in late February.
“It’s been my observation over the last two years that the Salt Lake County Republican Party has not always been … at its best,” he said. “I felt we needed to have a change of leadership, better leadership.”
Langford said his “quality of character” trumps “quantity of experience.”
“I feel we need to have moral, virtuous leadership,” Langford said.
He’s particularly opposed to the “big tent” approach to the party previously touted by Miller as the reason Republicans swept most county races in November, which created a veto-proof supermajority on the County Council.
“Political parties, and certainly the Republican Party, cannot be all things to all people,” Langford said. “If we attempt to be all things to all people, we alienate all people.”
The candidate said he sees merits to both the signature-gathering route and caucus-convention for party candidates, but he worries the current system is being abused.
“Moderates tend to benefit from party switching as well,” Langford said. “There needs to be changes and reforms made there to limit some of the party switching prior to the primaries.”
A recent study found that while the number of Utah voters who registered in the GOP spiked ahead of last year’s primaries, most were unaffiliated voters becoming Republicans rather than Democrats switching parties. Lawmakers, nevertheless, passed a law prohibiting voters from switching parties for about three months before a primary election.
Langford and Anderson face a formidable challenger in Null, who became a party delegate eight years ago and has served on the county GOP’s executive committee for the past three years.
After all that experience learning about the inner workings of the party, Null said caucus reform will be his main focus.
“I understand that caucus-convention system has been broken for a while,” he said. “We need to fix that. Adding the signature path allows outside influences to come in and manipulate the system, the will of the party, in a way that waters down our platform principles.”
Null works in building and troubleshooting data systems, and he wants to bring his tech experience to the party. To improve the convention system, Null proposes reforms like electronic voting as well as online portals, where candidates can post bios and get to know delegates ahead of the caucus.
“The big problem we have right now,” Null said, “is a lot of people don’t feel they can participate.”
But the reforms Null proposes will take money, he said, which is why improved fundraising would also be among his priorities.
“There’s an opinion that fundraising has to come from grassroots,” Null said. “I think that’s a fatal mistake.”
He added that improved fundraising on the party’s end would make candidates less beholden to big donors after they take office.
“There’s no better way to avoid those strings than to have the money come through the party,” Null said. “[A party chair] can’t write a law that will affect a business. All we do is get candidates elected.”
Null said that while he wants to funnel funds to candidates, he disagrees with the county party’s decision to take over campaigns and campaign resources last year, which opened the door for Robinson to allegedly manipulate candidates and influence their platforms.
“Each candidate, they’re running for a reason. They have their own messaging they want to get out,” Null said. “My hope is to provide resources and hand those resources over to them, not to control them.”
Regarding the toxic culture that emerged over the latest election while he held a position of power on the executive committee, Null said he brought women’s complaints to Miller and urged him to take action.
The party formed an ethics committee to address the allegations after Miller’s resignation.
“I absolutely do not agree with the way things were handled,” Null said. “I’ve learned we need to be above reproach. We need to ensure everyone from the moderate to the hard right [is] involved so we can come together as a party and unite our principles.”