For Utahns looking to understand the future of the Republican Party in 2022, there was no better place than Farmington High School on Saturday. There, candidates at the Davis County Republican Convention ran through culture war issues dominating the zeitgeist on America’s political right.
Railing against mandates and government overreach? Check.
Warnings about critical race theory creeping into Utah’s schools? You know it.
Attacks on President Joe Biden? Absolutely.
There was also mention of other policy issues like rising inflation, tax cuts and preserving Utah’s increasingly scarce water sources. Still, those were more of a garnish on the heaping plate of red meat being served up to delegates.
Donald Trump’s presidency and subsequent loss to President Joe Biden, combined with growing anger from two years of Covid restrictions, has reoriented the party to such a degree that it’s hard to believe Sen. Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee just ten years ago.
That hard lurch to the right-wing of the party cost longtime state Rep. Steve Handy of Layton his seat in the Legislature on Saturday. One of the state’s more moderate Republicans, Handy, was defeated by newcomer Trevor Lee, who has embraced several right-wing issues during his campaign.
On his campaign website, Lee says he favors election audits and wants to pass “heartbeat” legislation, which bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected. Lee also says he favors a ban on “anyone with male DNA from competing on Women’s (sic) sports teams.”
Handy was one of several Republicans who flipped their vote to help override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill banning transgender athletes. Although the vote switch wasn’t enough to sway Davis County delegates to support the longtime lawmaker. Lee is now unopposed in HD16.
On Saturday, other prominent Davis County Republicans were forced into a primary contest by more right-wing candidates.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson of Layton, co-chair of the Legislature’s top budget committee, was sent to a primary against Betty Young. Her campaign website focuses on the perceived loss of liberties and parental rights.
Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, was sent to a primary against Ronald Mortensen, who has a history of sharing false, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Mortensen was nominated for a top post at the State Department by former President Donald Trump, but he was never confirmed.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, avoided an outright loss on Saturday by taking the signature-gathering route to potential re-election. He moves on to a June primary against Lyle Mason, who has been a favorite of right-wing groups like Utah Parents United.
Utah’s HD18 — which is open after Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, announced he would not run for another term — features a primary election between a former Centerville Mayor Paul Cutler and Alena Ericksen.
Ericksen, who briefly ran for Congress in 2021, has adopted rhetoric common to the far-right anti-government sovereign citizen movement. She also sued state officials and the Davis School District over coronavirus-related restrictions. The two suits sought nearly $1.5 billion in damages.
The startling turn to the right on Saturday was evident throughout Saturday’s convention, focusing on culture war issues over more traditional bread and butter Republican topics.
Even the international crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was just a passing mention, only coming up during the opening prayer and from Gov. Spencer Cox, who bizarrely connected it to his signing of last year’s bill allowing for the carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit.
“Let me tell you, our friends in Ukraine understand the importance of the right to bear arms,” Cox said.
He also used the crisis to attack the Biden administration’s decision to halt new leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands.
Even the top Republican in the House, Speaker Brad Wilson, adjusted his approach to facing his first intra-party challenger since 2010. On Saturday, his speech to delegates was a clear example of that shifting political landscape.
Wilson spent a good portion of the just concluded 2022 session focused on saving the Great Salt Lake and pushing through a $200 million tax cut package. Saturday, he led off attacking former state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, who Utah Republicans have villanized in the wake of unpopular pandemic restrictions.
“I was in a meeting two years ago with the Senate president, the governor, myself and Angela Dunn. Dr. Dunn was advocating something we all thought was troubling. She wanted to keep our school closed. She wanted to shutter our businesses. And she wanted us to stay home, basically amounting to government telling us what we can and cannot do and controlling every aspect of our lives,” Wilson said.
After discussing efforts to keep “harmful ideologies” out of Utah’s schools, an oblique reference to critical race theory, he stepped onto the more familiar rhetorical ground of tax cuts.
“In the last few years, we have cut taxes for seniors and businesses and other Utahns, but we’ve got a long way to go. We are not done cutting your taxes,” Wilson said.
That was enough for Wilson, who earned enough support from delegates to avoid being sent to a primary, even though he collected signatures to be safe.
Saturday’s results may provide a clue to how much further to the right delegates at next month’s GOP state convention may lean. Last year saw Republican delegates rain boos on Sen. Romney and Gov. Cox. A further step in that direction could see more longtime Republican officeholders facing an unexpected primary or suddenly out of office.