Republicans see high attendance for Utah’s GOP caucus night. Will the off-year be a big year for voter turnout?

This year’s U.S. Senate race in Utah was on the top of Republicans’ minds as they elected delegates during the caucus night.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Registered Republicans in a South Jordan precinct vote for state delegates on GOP caucus night in a Bingham High School classroom on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. At center is precinct chair Janalee Tobias.

Utah Republicans showed up to Tuesday evening’s GOP caucus night in higher numbers than most years with a midterm election, despite warnings for an impending snowstorm along the Wasatch Front. It was also the first time in four years that Republican caucus-goers had met in person after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancelation of the 2020 evening of party delegate elections.

But turnout was nowhere near that of the attendance avalanche in 2016 when the Utahns overwhelmingly voted for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over eventual GOP nominee Donald Trump.

State Republican GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen said turnout was above-average for a non-presidential election year, although Washington County was off the charts.

“Most precincts in Washington County were averaging 45 to 50 people. Toquerville had 50 people show up!” Jorgensen said. He added the party had to beef up the servers powering their precinct information website on Tuesday evening because of higher than expected traffic.

Utah County GOP Chair Skyler Beltran says attendance was typical for a non-presidential election year, despite some bad weather that may have held down attendance.

“It was great to see so many engaged voters participating in the political process. Republicans and conservative values are strong in Utah County,” Beltran said.

Salt Lake County Chair Chris Null said he was delighted with Tuesday’s attendance.

“We had a lot of courageous people who love our county, state and country show their support tonight,” said Null

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Registered Republicans in a South Jordan precinct stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at GOP caucus night in a Bingham High School classroom on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

In South Jordan, Republicans took over Bingham High School, where the longest delay for caucus-goers was adjusting to new precincts, which had been scrambled through the redistricting process.

In the world of 24/7 cable news, social media hot takes and raucous political rallies, the quaint wholesomeness of a neighborhood caucus meeting can be disorienting to the uninitiated. While it’s an unabashedly partisan affair, Tuesday night lacked the rancor one might expect from a modern-day political event.

In one South Jordan precinct, chair Janalee Tobias and her husband Steve, the vice-chair, handed out snacks before the meeting started.

Attendees took turns reading the Utah GOP platform aloud, which did not seem out of place since it was taking place in a classroom. The main business of the evening was to elect delegates to the county and state GOP conventions in April.

“If you’re a delegate, you’re going to be the best friend of a lot of candidates between now and April 30,” Tobias said. She speaks from experience, having first been elected a delegate in 1990.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Tobias's tie on GOP caucus night in a Bingham High School classroom on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Nick Whatcott, a Bluffdale business owner who won election as a state delegate in his district, said the pandemic was one reason he decided to run for the post. The owner of G.O.A.T. Haircuts said COVID-19 restrictions hit his business hard and that he’s concerned about government infringement on individual rights.

”It’s incredible that some of these things — our liberties, our rights — they just continue to be stripped,” said Whatcott, a father of three. “And I am not going to stand for allowing my boys to have that future.”

In his speech to fellow precinct members, Whatcott also expressed support for Sen. Mike Lee, while denouncing Sen. Mitt Romney as a “fraud.”

Delegates are more precious than gold in election years as they hold the ticket to primary elections or party nominations.

This year’s U.S. Senate race in Utah was top of mind for attendees in several precinct meetings as potential delegates were asked whether they supported incumbent Republican Mike Lee or one of his GOP rivals.

“Mike Lee is one of the best we’ve had in a long time,” Stan Brunswick, who was picked as a state delegate, said.

Lee was held in high regard by much of the Republican grassroots. Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox? Not so much.

“I’m not going to discuss Romney. I don’t like Cox,” said Robert Maxwell, who attended a caucus in South Jordan.

Dan Hardle, the second state delegate elected from that Bluffdale precinct, is also a business owner who decried COVID-19 mandates. Though he’s lived in Bluffdale for about seven years, he said he’d never attended a caucus night before Tuesday, but that he and his wife decided they had to get more politically engaged.

”I actually feel like the biggest threat is not the left, the Democrats, it’s our own party,” he said. “There’s so many different Republican representatives that are RINOs [Republicans in name only]. They’re not truly conservatives. They don’t represent our values.”