Utah Republicans turn to the next generation for new party leadership

Sheep rancher Carson Jorgensen elected party chair in an upset, as he triumphed over a candidate endorsed by Gov. Spencer Cox.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carson Jorgensen running for Utah Party Chair, speaks with delegates attending the Utah Republican Party’s 2021 Organizing Convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

West Valley City • Utah Republicans turned the keys to the party over to a youthful new leadership team on Saturday, all of whom are under the age of 35.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney gets ready to take the stage during the Utah Republican Party’s 2021 Organizing Convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, May 1, 2021, where he was booed by Republican delegates numbering more than 1,900.

Sheep rancher Carson Jorgensen won the election for party chair on Saturday. His win was widely viewed as an upset as he defeated two other candidates to replace outgoing chairman Derek Brown. Jorgensen’s previous political experience was unsuccessfully challenging Rep. Chris Stewart for the GOP nomination in 2020. He seemed mildly shocked after the results were announced.

“We knew there was always a chance, and we wouldn’t have been in the race if we didn’t think there was,” said a smiling Jorgensen late Saturday. “But, at the end of the day, it’s clearly a surprise.”

Jorgensen and former Utah County Party chairman Stewart Peay advanced to a second round of voting after party delegates eliminated former congressional candidate Tina Cannon in the first round. Political newcomer Brad Baker dropped out of the race on Saturday morning after endorsing Jorgensen. Former Salt Lake County Party Chair Scott Miller quit the race on Friday.

The results were a stunning rebuke to Gov. Spencer Cox and other establishment Republicans who had thrown their support behind Peay and a slate of candidates who had dubbed themselves “Team Utah GOP.” That group sent a letter to delegates endorsing Peay and the other candidates last week, which upset many in the GOP. All of the candidates who received that stamp of approval lost.

In the race for vice-chair, southern Utah’s Jordan Hess soundly defeated Austin Cox, who was in charge of Spencer Cox’s successful gubernatorial campaign and earned his endorsement. Olivia Dawn Horlacher ousted current party secretary Kendra Seeley, who was also part of the establishment-endorsed slate of candidates, while Michael Bird ran unopposed for a second term as party treasurer.

“I kept hearing that people were upset that they were being told who to vote for rather than being provided with information and being able to make that choice on their own,” said Horlacher.

The new GOP leadership team is now composed entirely of millennials. Jorgensen is 32, Hess and Bird are both 33, while Horlacher is 29. Jorgensen says their youth will help them as they seek to connect with younger voters.

“We have to go where the voters are,” said Jorgensen. “So many people say that the Republican Party is the dominant party in Utah, so they’ll come to us. That’s not always the case.”

Brown opted not to seek another two-year term at the head of Utah’s dominant political party. During his benedictory address to delegates, Brown warned Republicans not to be complacent as several former solidly Republican states surrounding Utah, like Colorado and Arizona, had flipped to the Democratic column.

Jorgensen says he’s not taking Brown’s warning lightly.

“We want to keep this state red. We want to make sure that there’s a place in this party for everyone. We want the conservative values that have built this state are what are going to take us to the next level,” said Jorgensen.