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Is moderate Utah drifting to the political right?

The next election cycle is one reason hot-button issues are getting more traction among Republicans

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, during a hearing on HB302, a controversial bill on transgender athletics, by the Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

You could be forgiven if you thought mainstream Utah politics were tilting a little more to the extremes these days.

After all, the issues being discussed by policymakers include critical race theory, banning transgender athletes and making Utah a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” These topics usually bubble up in hardcore Republican states like Texas or Idaho, not “moderate” Utah.

In GOP-dominated Utah, the biggest fear for most politicians is a primary challenge from their political right. The easy political calculus says supporting “red meat” issues now may stave off an electoral headache in 2022.

Last month, Utah lawmakers went around Gov. Spencer Cox to approve two nonbinding resolutions to ban teaching of critical race theory in the state’s K-12 schools and to show support for gun rights. Those moves came after Cox declined to put the issues up for consideration in the recent special session.

The resolutions are nonbinding, which means they don’t do anything. Critical race theory is not taught in any Utah classroom, and it’s not under consideration by state education officials. And gun rights in the state are far from being threatened. Lawmakers dramatically expanded the rights of gun owners earlier this year, allowing for the carry of concealed weapons in public without a permit.

Instead, they seemed to send a message.

“It’s absolutely not governance,” says Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen, who lives in Park City. “You’re seeing this in states controlled exclusively by Republicans. They’re basically waging a culture war, and the wager they’re making is it will have a positive electoral outcome for them next November.”

But the question persists: Why are these issues burning so hot among Utah Republicans right now? There may be a few factors at play.

“It’s a little bit of a reaction to Democratic administration in the White House,” says Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan. “There may be more concern surrounding that, so voters want to see us standing up and pushing back on the federal government.”

The other, notes Galen, is a backlash to the rapidly changing face of Utah.

“I live in Park City. The influx of people we’re getting from other states like California, Texas, Connecticut and others is amazing. The last thing any of these guys want is somebody coming into their playground and upsetting things.”

Cultural issues are springing up

It’s not just Utah. The focus on cultural issues has taken on greater significance in several GOP strongholds this year. Republican Idaho pushed through a ban on critical race theory this year, and Arkansas approved bills banning almost all abortions in the state and restricting rights for transgender people.

These issues tend to energize the more activist and engaged elements of the Republican party. That’s not by accident.

“This is more of an ecosystem than a political party,” said Galen, explaining that the Republican base and right-wing media essentially feed off each other.

“Sometimes Fox News says something about critical race theory or whatever, and that lights up the grassroots and social media,” he said. “But there are other times that some fringe topic starts getting attention on Facebook, and the Fox hosts see it so they end up talking about it.”

In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers debated several bills that appealed to GOP voters. One targeted the moderation practices of social media companies, a cause celebre of Republicans after former President Donald Trump was kicked off most social media platforms for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Cox vetoed the bill. Lawmakers plan to raise the issue again next year.

A controversial piece of legislation barring transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports died after the owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz got involved behind the scenes. Rep. Kera Birkeland, the sponsor, plans to run the bill again in the 2022 session. There will be a public hearing on her proposal next week.

Utah lawmakers also banned the use of so-called vaccine passports by the government and slapped cellphone manufacturers with a requirement that new devices sold in the state default to blocking adult content. They also banned mask mandates in schools.

And it’s not just the Legislature. Last week, the Davis County Sheriff’s Office announced it would no longer enforce new laws or executive orders that infringe on Second Amendment rights.

Why the urgency?

“The ability of some of these groups to get their voices heard is greater than it’s ever been before,” Teuscher said. “It’s unprecedented.”

Take, for example, the critical race theory debate. Utah Parents United, the group that led the crusade against masks in Utah’s schools, spearheaded the opposition.

“People can get in touch with you much faster,” he said, “and that may have something to do with the Legislature wanting to respond to that.”

But, at least to one longtime politico, Utah is slow to catch up with the shifts that are driving the Republican Party nationally.

“Utah is behind the curve on these things. I’m amazed at how slow we’ve been compared to other states,” says former Rep. Chris Cannon, who served six terms in Congress beginning in 1997.

For instance, it took lawmakers seven years to pass a bill doing away with permits for concealed weapons in public because they didn’t have enough support to overcome former Gov. Gary Herbert’s veto pen.

It’s a good bet Utah Republicans will suffer few if any political consequences from the focus on critical race theory, limiting transgender rights or bills that push back against the federal government. They recently altered or gutted three voter-approved initiatives and lost only one seat in the Legislature in the 2020 election. In fact, the greater danger for many lawmakers is doing something that will precipitate a challenge from their political right.


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