Utah Republicans plan in-person convention despite cash crunch and coronavirus risk

Outgoing chairman Derek Brown furiously fundraised to pay for the annual meeting in West Valley City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart talks to Utah Republican Party chairman Derek Brown at the Utah Association of Realtors office in Sandy, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

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The Utah Republican Party will host an in-person convention in May, as COVID-related restrictions continue to be lifted.

Outgoing party chairman Derek Brown is furiously raising cash to pay for the in-person convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.

“That’s what I do all the time,” said Brown, seemingly joking. “The party chairman spends at least 60% of their time raising money.”

But given the party’s cash crunch, some are wondering if the in-person gathering is a wise use of limited resources.

Several Republican donors tell The Tribune that Brown has asked for money to pay for this year’s gathering. Some are having difficulty justifying the costs of an in-person convention given the success and comparatively low price tag for last year’s online event.

Brown told The Tribune on Friday he has raised enough money to cover the cost of the convention. He declined to offer a firm cost for the convention, but noted previous state gatherings cost between $70,000 and $80,000.

“This one will be in line with those, and we’ve raised more than we need,” Brown said.

Brown added there will be additional opportunities to fundraise at the convention and he’s not worried about running a deficit.

More than 4,000 Republican delegates could attend the convention.

There is concern that holding an in-person event, even if it is in a large arena, will pose risk for attendees who have not received a coronavirus vaccine. Polls show Republicans, specifically Republican men, are most likely to refuse the vaccine, with 50% saying they do not plan on being vaccinated. Overall, more than 90% of Democrats say they plan to be vaccinated and 46% of Republicans plan to do so.

According to the Utah Department of Health, 1.12 million Utahns have had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, while 714,923 have been fully vaccinated. There are 2,161 Utahns who have died from the virus.

“I am 100% in favor of an in-person convention. I think that’s the way it should be,” says Larry Meyers, a member of the central committee from southern Utah. “I don’t believe the health risk is sufficient to cause anybody not to participate in person.”

Brown says they’re designing a floorplan to allow for social distancing among delegates, and mandatory mask-wearing, which is a venue requirement.

“Even though we don’t have a lot of restrictions on gatherings now, we will require masks for everyone,” Brown said.

Money woes

The state Republican party is cash poor in the wake of the 2020 election cycle. Year-end financial disclosures showed a little more than $6,200 in the party’s account as of December. The organization’s federal account showed $418 on hand at the end of February.

The spending worked - Republicans enjoyed success from the top to the bottom of the ballot in 2020, including Burgess Owens’ defeat of Democrat Ben McAdams to win back control of a congressional seat they lost just two years earlier.

“We left everything on the field, spending everything we had to get our candidates across the finish line,” Brown said.

When Utah imposed restrictions on gathering due to the coronavirus, Brown and others gained flexibility with respect to the convention. New delegates are typically selected at the biennial caucus meetings. That process was nixed last year and current delegates remained in their positions for another two years.

Traditional convention speeches gave way to recorded online videos. Instead of casting a ballot in the convention hall, delegates voted online.

Some 3,800 of the state party’s delegates were credentialled for last year’s online convention, and 93% of those participated in the voting.

The county and state parties were welcome to host virtual, or even hybrid, conventions again this year. Most Republican organizations passed.

Utah Democrats are planning a virtual state convention in June, but there may be a small in-person event held outdoors. Most of the county parties, both Republican and Democrat, are eschewing virtual meetings in favor of returning to a physical location.

Drive-through voting

While most of the county-level Republican parties took the in-person convention route, two of the biggest, Salt Lake and Utah counties, decided to go virtual. Washington County offered delegates an option to attend online.

Others got creative. Davis County hosted a “drive-through” convention last year. Delegates liked that approach so much, they did it again last week.

“Going all online was not the best option for us,” said Davis County party chair Daniela Harding.

The innovative idea had delegates showing up at a pre-determined time to receive their ballot to vote on party leaders. They then drove to one area to fill it out, then dropped it off before driving away.

“Delegates loved it,” added Harding, who noted the Davis County Clerk is interested in adopting the idea for future elections.

Davis County GOP leaders voted in September to do the drive-through event again.

“Only one person said we need to return to in-person,” Harding said. “We need to get back to that point, but this was the best option.”

Similarly, the Salt Lake County party’s decision to hold an online-only affair was made months ago.

“We weren’t in a position to know whether we would be able to meet,” said new party chair Chris Null. “I wish we had met in person, but there was just no way to know what things would look like.”

Greater turnout online?

Online conventions in 2020 led to more participation by delegates. Instead of giving up a Saturday to sit in an arena or high school auditorium, voting was done from the comfort of home on a laptop or tablet.

In 2018, the last time the state GOP held its convention at the Maverik Center, just over 3,300 delegates attended to vote in a hotly-contested U.S. Senate race featuring a dozen candidates, including Mitt Romney. The 2020 online-only state convention saw more than 3,800 cast ballots.

In Washington County, turnout for 2020’s virtual convention was 93% and at this year’s hybrid event attendance dropped to 81%.

Since a virtual meeting worked so well last year, why not do it again, especially given the financial challenges and potential public health risks that come with an in-person convention?

It’s possible moving back to a physical venue is a political purity test of sorts. Only the most dedicated party stalwarts will pack into a hockey arena during a pandemic.

Brown says state party rules prevented a return to an online, or even hybrid convention this year. This because, he says, the state is lifting pandemic-related restrictions.

The party’s central committee could have altered its rules. Several central committee members The Tribune spoke with said the possibility never made it past the initial discussion phase, in part because vocal members insisted on holding the convention in person.

Delegates at the May event will choose the party leadership for the next two years, guides them through the 2022 midterm election cycle. There are five candidates to replace Brown, who declined to run for another term.