Utah Republicans brace for big turnout for Tuesday’s caucus meetings

Candidates and political groups are recruiting attendees ahead of Tuesday’s GOP caucus night.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Thank you for not making this a partisan issue," said Chris Null, Salt Lake County Republican Party chairman, right, to the committee, seated next to Carson Jorgensen, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, center, Nov. 8, 2021, during the Utah Legislature's Redistricting Committee's only public hearing for the map proposals.

The last time grassroots Utah Republicans gathered for neighborhood caucus meetings Donald Trump was still in the White House, the GOP had unified control of Congress, and gas prices were rising, hovering around $2.50 per gallon.

Then, in March 2018, GOP leaders noted attendance was down significantly from the 2016 and 2014 caucuses. There wasn’t much interest even though Mitt Romney was one of a dozen Republicans vying to take the place of Sen. Orrin Hatch, who announced his retirement from Congress earlier in the year.

Utah’s political system was then upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancelation of the 2020 caucuses. After a four-year break, Republican party leaders say interest is through the roof, and they are expecting packed houses on Tuesday evening.

“People are becoming frustrated with what’s happening, and they see politics is the reason behind a lot of these problems, and they want to get engaged,” Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen said.

The pandemic also delayed the release of census data, which impacted Utah’s once-a-decade redistricting process. The Legislature didn’t approve the new maps until November, which impacted the approval of new precinct boundaries. Now, state and county party leaders, who didn’t receive the final data until two weeks ago, are left scrambling ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting.

“We were calling old precinct chairs telling them they used to be in a certain area, but now they’ve moved and would they please come to help on Tuesday,” Daniela Harding, Davis County GOP Chair, said.

It is up to individual county parties to run the caucus meetings, with the state party acting in support. The Utah GOP launched a new “Precinct Portal” website to help party members find their caucus meetings within the last few weeks.

Utah County is experimenting with Tuesday’s format with an “open voting” pilot program, which allows caucus-goers to vote anytime between 6 - 9 p.m. without having to stay for a three-hour meeting. Utah County GOP Chair Skyler Beltran says the aim is to increase participation while making meetings more efficient.

“The program allows people to come to caucus for as little or as much time as they choose. We, of course, would love everyone to stay for the entire program, but sometimes schedules don’t allow for that,” Beltran said.

About 100 precincts will try out the alternate format, mainly in the northern part of the county.

Utah’s caucus meetings have lost some luster since the state’s dual-path nominating system went into effect four years ago. If candidates no longer must rely on delegates to win the nomination or advance to a primary, it would make sense that the incentive for taking part in the caucus would be diminished. But that’s not happening this year.

Salt Lake County Republican chair Chris Null says after two years of webcams and virtual meetings because of the pandemic, there is an appetite to engage in retail politics face-to-face.

“I think there’s this feeling to get back together and talk about our shared values again. Let’s get back to basics and get everything back on track,” Null said.

And it’s not only candidates who are working on getting their supporters to the meetings, but political groups like Utah Parents United are rallying followers.

“There are a bunch of political groups that are taking an interest in the caucuses. It’s funny as they’re competing for the same people and pushing the same ideas, so they’re starting to converge and become one larger group,” Null said.

Caucusing Republicans won’t be alone on Tuesday. United Utah Party supporters will also meet, with independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin addressing attendees.

Utah Democrats hold their caucus meetings on March 22.