Radicalization of Davis County’s Republican Party is a bad omen for Utah, Robert Gehrke writes

Davis Republicans took a hard-right turn at their convention and it should concern all Utahns — especially U.S. Rep. John Curtis

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Handy talks to delegates, at the Davis County Republican nominating convention at Farmington High School, on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

We have seen them disrupt school board meetings protesting critical race theory, stage raucous demonstrations at local government meetings over mask requirements, and perpetuate unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud.

Now we get to see these fringe conservatives, frothing and radicalized, start to eat their own. And their first course was Layton Rep. Steve Handy, who for nearly 12 years was one of the most moderate Republicans in the Utah House.

He was less moderated when discussing what led to his defeat.

“It was a hijack from these ultra-right-wing groups trying to paint me as not conservative enough,” he told me this week.

Handy was beaten by Trevor Lee, a political newcomer who leaned in hard to GOP red meat grievances. Lee wants to do away with mail-in voting and ban any vaccine or mask requirements.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Lee hit Handy for proposing a red flag law, which allows police to take guns from suicidal or mentally unstable individuals. In states that have them, red flag laws have saved lives, but Handy quickly abandoned the measure when he couldn’t get buy-in from gun groups.

Perhaps most damaging to Handy was his vote against House Bill 11, banning transgender girls from competing in girls’ high school sports. He had voted for the creation of a commission to screen transgender athletes when it passed the House, but voted against a complete ban when it popped up in the last hours of the session because the process was flawed.

Last week he voted to override the governor’s veto after the state agreed to cover the Utah High School Activities Association’s legal costs, but the damage was already done.

Other moderate incumbents had to deal with the right-wing uprising, as well. State Sen. Jerry Stevenson, Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard and Rep. Ray Ward will all have primaries. Ward would have been eliminated had he not gathered enough signatures to secure a spot on the primary ballot, something Handy acknowledges he should have done.

All of their challengers ran on some combination of election fraud, critical race theory, school transparency, anti-socialism and transphobia.

There are a few takeaways from the radical Republicanism creeping into traditionally normal places like Davis County:

On some level, we saw this coming. The last time we saw this kind of fundamentalist shift was with the Tea Party movement, which arose after Democrats took control of the U.S. House, Senate and White House. So when Democrats took over all three again in 2020, it was safe to assume a backlash was coming.

It’s also a function of difficult pandemic-related realities and manufactured fantasies over election fraud, critical race theory in schools and transgender athletes dominating girls’ sports — all of which are fueled by a diet of Fox News and social media memes.

Voters, Handy said, are “relying on this fractured social media and all this weird garbage out there, and you don’t know what to believe.”

They may not know what to believe, but they’re angry about it. And anger is a heck of a motivator.

I’m told caucus turnout in Davis was down this year. The caucus was earlier than usual and the weather wasn’t great, so a lot of people stayed home. The people who did show up were those who were out for blood. It shows in the results and I suspect we’ll see similar trends across the state as more counties hold their conventions.

Utah Congressman John Curtis should be a little worried. You’ll recall back in 2017 there was a special Republican convention to nominate a replacement for retiring Rep. Jason Chaffetz. The winner, in a convincing fashion, was former state Rep. Chris Herrod.

Curtis finished a distant fifth at that convention, but because he had gathered signatures advanced to the primary where mainstream voters carried him to victory. The following year, Curtis finished ahead of Herrod at the convention, but still had to go to a primary, which he ended up winning in convincing fashion).

Herrod is now back for a third shot this time and, for some inexplicable reason, Curtis opted not to gather signatures — which was ultimately Handy’s downfall. Curtis may not need them in the end. If he can get the 40% needed to advance to a primary, he will likely win it in another landslide.

But if what we saw in Davis County wasn’t a fluke, it’s conceivable Curtis may regret not having the insurance policy and become the first member of Utah’s congressional delegation ousted since pre-signature days when Sen. Bob Bennett fell victim to the 2010 Tea Party uprising that gave us Sen. Mike Lee.

The caucus-convention system remains badly broken. This isn’t new, but highlights the lingering problem of giving a small handful of party activists so much power in deciding who will, or won’t, represent on about 42,000 people in a House district and more than 110,000 people in a Senate district.

The signature path in 2014’s Senate Bill 54 was supposed to put the power back in the hands of voters and it has worked, but more can be done like lowering the signature thresholds and perhaps doing away with the conventions entirely in favor of ranked-choice primaries.

Normally, this could pose an opportunity for Democrats — but it won’t. If you talk to lifelong mainstream Republicans, their feelings about the direction of the party ranges from distress to disgust.

“I think it’s a trend and it’s a really dangerous trend because what it does is take the mainstream Utah Republican conservatives, a Reagan-type conservative, and drives them out of the Republican Party,” Hardy said.

“It moves it toward irrelevancy,” he said, “unless there’s a correction.”

The problem: Democrats didn’t field a candidate in Handy’s race or any of the other races where fringe Republicans are now in primaries with mainstream incumbents.

So the big takeaway is apparent. If we see the same dynamics play out in other GOP conventions, moderate Republican legislators are going to be replaced by strident, conspiracy-peddling candidates and our Legislature will end up being even more radical and toxic.