The reception Republican delegates gave Gov. Spencer Cox at Utah’s GOP convention earlier this month was an indication something unexpected could happen.
Cox was booed as he took the stage to speak. The delegates who heckled him were the same delegates who just a year ago gave him a convincing convention win over six other Republicans running for governor.
It struck a dissonant political note. After all, Cox, who took office in January, has a 66% approval rating with Utah voters and 70% of Republicans.
The same delegates who heckled Cox also booed Sen. Mitt Romney for having the temerity to stand up to former President Donald Trump.
They then slapped down members of the Utah Republican establishment, rejecting their preferred slate of candidates for the party leadership elections and cleaning house at GOP headquarters.
What happened in Utah earlier this month roughly mirrors the shift to the right that’s unfolding across the country.
Republicans in Congress are moving to purge Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership spot in the House because of her repeated criticism of Trump. In Arizona, Republicans are auditing the election results in Democrat-heavy Maricopa County in an effort to find some evidence to support Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
“The Republican base is behaving so irrationally,” said Mike Madrid, a former Republican strategist who worked for the Republican National Committee for several years. “Getting beat is a time for self-reflection and a movement toward building a broader tent trying to attract more voters. The Republican Party is doing the exact opposite, purging some of its most well-known and influential leadership.
“That’s not a recipe for winning more races,” he said. “It’s a recipe for becoming more extreme.”
Is the Utah GOP base that far out of step from the rest of the state? And if so, what does that mean for the dominant political party going forward?
Romney had a stark warning for delegates before wrapping up his speech, after delegates heckled him.
“If we divide our party,” he said, “we will lose our party.”
A Utah Republican move toward the political right could have a profound long-term effect on the state’s political landscape. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada were once reliably Republican. They’re now in the Democratic column.
Is Utah on the same path?
“Utah is going to grow more Trumpy,” Madrid said. “It will become a bit more like Idaho until it’s not. Then it will turn into Colorado or Arizona. It’s just math.”
Republican parties in red states are getting more extreme, per Madrid, which is driving away the more moderate members. College-educated Republicans are leaving in droves because they don’t like the direction of the party, he added.
“They don’t like the grievance politics. They don’t like the defense of the Confederacy,” he said. “The party base just keeps moving in that direction, and they felt left behind.”
The Trump factor
Both Romney and Cox have made headlines for their criticism of Trump.
“You’re seeing signs that traditional Republicans like Mitt Romney are no longer acceptable,” said Madrid, who is a co-founder of the Lincoln Project but stepped away from the anti-Trump organization last year.
Trump finished in last place in Utah’s 2016 GOP presidential caucus, capturing just under 14% of the vote. After securing the Republican nomination, he carried Utah in the 2016 election but failed to win a majority of the vote with 45.5%. He won 58% of the vote in 2020. That’s almost 15% less than Romney got when he was the GOP presidential nominee less than a decade ago.
Madrid said as the GOP base has moved to the right nationally, Utah Republicans cannot resist the gravitational pull.
“That means a more intense, radicalized base,” he said, “which you’re starting to see in Utah.”
Consider newly elected party secretary Olivia Horlacher. She ousted the sitting secretary by an overwhelming margin.
Horlacher is a die-hard supporter of the former president. Posts on her social media repeatedly amplify the false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
Horlacher also was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters attacked Congress in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election win. There’s no evidence that Horlacher entered the Capitol on that day, but she was on the grounds.
Horlacher’s post-election behavior is in step with most of the Republican Party. An April poll found more than half of GOP voters mistakenly believe the 2020 election was fraudulent.
Horlacher did not respond to requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.
The base strikes back
The GOP state convention seemed tailor-made to produce the kind of upset we saw earlier this month.
In 2020, party leaders crowed about how more than 90% of delegates participated in the online nominating convention, a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic. Just over 50% of the 3,600 delegates were in attendance this year.
The voters who did show up sent a message to party bigwigs, which resulted in the Cox-approved slate of candidates going home empty-handed.
“There were an element of attendees in this convention who were not supportive of Cox,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “It’s a common occurrence for a governor to put forward a slate of candidates for party offices. But the delegates didn’t want that.”
To put it another way, those were not Cox’s people in the audience, and it’s not clear what he did to make sure his delegates attended.
Moreover, the first round of voting for party officers came after Cox and Romney spoke. If they weren’t already primed to vote for anti-establishment party leaders, the visceral reaction to Romney and Cox likely sealed the deal.
“Some of these elected officials, including Romney and Cox, have become viewed by many inside the party as mainstream. They were looking for someone else,” Perry said. “That was a reflection of the temperament of this group.”
Money makes the (political) world go round
New party Chairman Carson Jorgensen is clearly of the anti-establishment wing of the party. He raised some eyebrows last week when The Tribune reported on a text message in which he said elected leaders should be beholden to the party, not the other way around.
Prominent Utah Republicans worry Jorgensen, who is thin on political experience with only an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2020 under his belt, may not be up to the task.
Chief among the concerns is the party’s ability to fundraise. Several Republicans tell The Tribune the party’s overhead costs, which include rent, staff salaries and technology, total around $40,000 per month, or more than $1,300 per day. There’s a worry the new team won’t be able to keep up.
One of the advantages of being part of the GOP mainstream in Utah is access to money. Big-pocketed donors are aligned with that mainstream group. Can Jorgensen, who has few connections to that part of the GOP, keep up with the fundraising demands of the ostensibly part-time job?
“We’re going to find out real quick if they are up to the task,” said one longtime Republican lobbyist who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the new party leadership.
Jorgensen isn’t worried.
“We’re ramping up our efforts to boost grassroots fundraising,” he said. “The folks who were elected are the candidates supported by the grassroots, and we’re going to make sure they step up.”
The party just recently retired a mountain of crippling debt due to herculean fundraising efforts by former Chairman Derek Brown. He also raised more than a million dollars to support candidates up and down the ballot in 2020. Those funds are mostly exhausted, so there’s little cushion for Jorgensen to fall back on.
State parties can play a crucial role in elections, providing financial and logistical support for candidates. If the new GOP leadership team has difficulty raising cash, that means fewer resources to go around and some critical needs may go wanting.
That mainstream vs. anti-establishment clash raises the question of whether they can find common ground, especially with the 2022 midterms and redistricting on the horizon. Republicans are in control of the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries, which affects the makeup of Utah’s four congressional districts and the 104 seats in the state Legislature. If that process is driven by a party moving to the political right, it likely will lead to candidates and elected officials more reflective of that political alignment.
“There’s going to be a learning curve,” Perry said. “In politics, you all have to be rowing in the same direction if you want to get anything done.”
In the past, that unity of direction was easier to come by. Top statewide officeholders in Utah who were facing election usually decided together who they wanted to lead the party, and delegates signed off.
“The chances of resolving any differences are good,” said Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann. “The successful candidates for party leadership positions were very focused on the importance of winning elections above all else in their speeches. There was also a focus on promoting party unity.”
Both elected officials and the new leadership, Cann added, must show humility and put aside any differences.
Romney in trouble?
Politicians must look ahead to the next election. And observers wonder if Romney may find a reelection bid in 2024 a risky prospect. A more “Trumpy” Utah GOP might make for a rough ride.
Romney doesn’t have to succeed with delegates to win a GOP primary because he can gather signatures and avoid being knocked out of the race at the convention. That’s what happened in 2018, when he lost in convention to then-state Rep. Mike Kennedy. But if this rightward shift is a harbinger of the direction the party is taking, then it could be dicey.
Four years is a long way away, but Cann said the real test for Romney is how he fares with his core voters. A January survey showed 50% of Utahns approved of Romney’s job performance, but only about a third of Republicans do. He’ll need to win support from Republican voters in a primary.
“While he has paid a price with some of those voters for his stance on Donald Trump’s impeachment, he remains reasonably popular with a significant segment of the Utah Republican electorate,” Cann said. “It would be unwise to count him out should he choose to seek reelection a few years down the road.”