As Sen. Mitt Romney and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox were booed by a crowd of more than 2,100 people who gathered — mostly without masks — at Saturday’s state Republican convention, a new generation of GOP leaders took control of Utah’s dominant political party.
Sheep rancher Carson Jorgensen won the election for Utah Republican Party chair. He was considered a long shot to replace outgoing Chairman Derek Brown. Jorgensen’s previous political experience was unsuccessfully challenging Rep. Chris Stewart for the GOP nomination in 2020.
“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.”
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.
But the news that reverberated throughout Utah and beyond was the treatment of the party’s establishment during a pair of speeches to delegates at West Valley City’s Maverik Center.
Sen. Mitt Romney was lustily booed as he stepped up to address the crowd.
“Aren’t you embarrassed?” said Romney, trying to deflect the chorus of catcalls that greeted him as he took the stage.
“I’m a man who says what he means, and you know I was not a fan of our last president’s character issues,” said Romney of former President Donald Trump, as delegates attempted to shout him down. People accused Romney of being a “traitor” or “communist.”
Outgoing party Chairman Derek Brown scolded delegates to “show respect” for Romney, who wasn’t the only recipient of boos from the crowd.
Cox also caught a measure of disapproval.
“I know some of you hate me for some of the decisions I had to make,” said Cox as he took the stage to a smattering of boos from delegates upset with COVID-19 restrictions. “But I want to point out that some of you haven’t been paying attention.”
Cox touted the state’s rapidly improving economy following the COVID-related downturn, noting Utah was one of two states to see net job growth during the pandemic. He also said the state did not go as far as some others with virus-related restrictions.
“We banned government vaccine passports,” said Cox to cheers, referencing a bill passed during the 2021 Utah Legislature. But that bill only blocked the state government from requiring vaccines. Private businesses can still require vaccinations for customers.
“We’ve also had zero restrictions on religious gatherings since October, and after this school year ends, there won’t be any more masks in schools,” said Cox.
Sen. Mike Lee drew a standing ovation as he took the podium and, hand on his heart, he cheered delegates in attendance “for taking action,” he said, calling their presence “an act of faith in the future.”
In a hardline speech, he blasted Democrats and invoked the U.S. Constitution and Founding Fathers, whom he praised for constraining government power on behalf of the people. He underscored their guarantees of unfettered gun ownership and limited intrusion into the lives of private citizens.
Lee assailed proposals to increase the number of judges on the U.S. Supreme Court as “a bone-headed idea,” saying it “would destroy judicial independence.” New Democratic efforts to reform U.S. elections, Lee added said, were a move “to destroy local control.”
“There are some truths we can never betray,” Lee told the crowd. “We are the stewards of our own destiny.”
He said Biden did not share that view.
“He wants us dependent on government,” Lee said, adding the president also wanted “to extend lockdowns. We want to end them!” The senator joked that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — responsible for guiding the nation’s health policies during the pandemic — “was less about disease and more about control.”
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, too, underscored a perceived threat from Washington to Utah values, and she accused Biden of jeopardizing the state’s energy sector with recent limits on development on public lands. Henderson said the Democratic-controlled Congress wanted to raise taxes irresponsibly and that it had thrown trillions in pandemic relief funds at the states during the health crisis.
“We all know there’s nothing more expensive than free money,” she said.
New Republican leaders
Jorgensen’s win in the party chair election was a rebuke to Cox and other establishment Republicans who threw their support behind a slate of candidates who dubbed themselves “Team Utah GOP.”
In the race for vice-chair, southern Utah’s Jordan Hess soundly defeated Austin Cox, who was in charge of 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.
The new GOP leadership team is now composed entirely of millennials. Jorgensen is 32, Hess and Bird are both 33, and 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,” Jorgensen said. “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 the 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, whose term begins Monday.