On Saturday, Republicans are expected to descend on the Maverik Center in West Valley City for the Utah GOP’s annual state convention. It’s the first major in-person political event since the coronavirus pandemic brought public gatherings in Utah to a halt last year.
Delegates will chose new leadership to guide the party for the next two years. They’ll also hear from top Republican officials including Gov. Spencer Cox and the state’s congressional delegation.
Speaking of Congress, this will be the first time Sen. Mitt Romney will make an appearance in front of party activists since he voted twice to impeach former President Donald Trump. Delegates will consider a resolution to censure Romney during the convention.
Here’s what to expect as the event kicks off at 8 a.m. on Saturday.
How many delegates will show up?
There are 3,600 delegates from around the state who are eligible to attend. But how many of those will actually show up amid a pandemic?
In 2020, the party held its nominating convention online and more than 90% of delegates participated in the virtual event. That number could be considerably lower this year because of COVID.
“Conventions are always unpredictable, and this year could be even more so,” says former Utah GOP chair Thomas Wright. “It’s hard to know what drives delegates and what motivates them to turn out for events.”
Wright was a candidate for governor last year and participated in the virtual convention. He says he’s excited to be returning to an in-person format.
“The whole dynamic was different last year. I understand it had to happen. It will be interesting to see what impact that will have on this year’s attendance,” he said. “I think there will be a good turnout, but it may take some time for the party to ramp back up to pre-pandemic attendance numbers.”
“I’d like to think we’re going to have a good turnout,” said Utah GOP chairman Derek Brown. “There are a lot of people who are excited about doing something in person because we haven’t done that for a long time.”
What about masks and social distancing?
Masks are required for any gathering in Utah with more than 50 people, and the Maverik Center requires masks for everyone inside the building. Whether attendees abide by that mandate could be another matter.
Social distancing could be a challenge. According to the proposed convention layout, if even ⅔ of the total number of delegates attend, they’ll be packed in one end of the arena with a seating capacity of just under 3,700.
“There will be areas specifically for people who want social distancing,” says Brown. “We’ve had delegates ask for that. Then there will be areas for people who are wearing masks or who have been vaccinated.”
This year, the only way to participate, or even keep track of the goings-on, is to physically show up on Saturday. There is no live streaming option.
Who will lead the Utah GOP for the next two years?
Delegates will select a replacement for outgoing Utah GOP chair Derek Brown, who decided not to seek a second term in office. The field of five candidates vying to be his successor includes former county party bosses, former congressional candidates, and a political newcomer.
Stewart Peay was the head of the Utah County GOP and unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination to replace Jason Chaffetz in Congress in 2017.
Carson Jorgensen challenged Rep. Chris Stewart for the GOP nomination last year but lost in the convention.
Tina Cannon was one of 10 Republicans who sought to replace Rob Bishop in Congress, but she failed to get out of the GOP convention last year. She is the sole woman in the race.
Brad Baker is a college student whose only political experience is volunteering for Spencer Cox’s gubernatorial campaign last year.
And Scott Miller, who resigned as the head of the Salt Lake County GOP earlier this year following allegations from women about a toxic culture under his leadership, was in the running but withdrew Friday.
The race has not been without controversy.
Miller attacked those who accused him of ignoring the problems in the Salt Lake County party and rescinded an apology that followed his resignation. Miller claims he was “Kavanaughed,” a reference to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct during his confirmation process.
That’s not the only flashpoint in the race.
Earlier this week top elected Republicans, including Gov. Spencer Cox, sent delegates a letter endorsing Peay and other candidates ahead of Saturday’s vote. The letter was sent out using the state party’s bulk mail permit, which is a common practice to help candidates reduce their costs.
Jorgensen complained that, while not against the rules, the letter could give the impression that the party is putting its thumb on the scale for one set of candidates over the others.
Voting will be electronic, which has been commonplace in past GOP conventions. The Utah GOP implemented ranked-choice voting for last year’s virtual convention. That’s out for 2021, which means there could be multiple rounds on Saturday until a candidate gets more than 50% of the votes.
How will Mitt be received?
Sen. Mitt Romney is scheduled to address the convention on Saturday and is expected to show up in person.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Romney hears some boos when he takes the stage.
“There are a lot of delegates who like him, and there are a lot who don’t,” Brown said.
This is the same pool of delegates that forced Romney into a primary in 2018 when he came in second at the convention behind now State Senator Mike Kennedy. The party had to keep the same delegates after the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the caucus meetings last year.
If Romney does get booed, he wouldn’t be the first high-profile Republican to experience that. In 2000, then-Governor Mike Leavitt received a rude reception from delegates who heckled and booed him, then forced him into a primary election before he won another term in office.
Adding to the drama surrounding Romney is a proposed resolution censuring him for his vote to convict former President Donald Trump during both of his impeachment trials.
“I believe Mitt Romney’s actions caused harm not only to the U.S. Constitution but our country and to the Republican Party,” says GOP delegate Don Guymon, who is sponsoring the censure resolution.
Romney was one of seven Republicans who crossed party lines and voted with Democrats to convict Trump after he incited a mob of his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election. Guymon’s resolution disputes Trump’s role in the attempted insurrection. It also faults Romney for participating in what the resolution says was an unconstitutional process.
“There are a lot of people in the Republican grassroots who are not happy with Mitt Romney, and this is an opportunity to send that message to him,” Guymon said.
Debate on Guymon’s resolution won’t be long. It’s scheduled at the end of the day’s events and has only been given 10 minutes on the agenda.