Richard Davis and Hillary Stirling: United Utah Party was the sleeper story of the 2020 election

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett answers a question as he participates in a debate on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Three candidates including Bennett are running to replace Jason Chaffetz in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The major election outcome this year was the election of a new governor for the first time in 11 years. However, there was another story that was missed. That is the continued growth of the United Utah Party.

This state-centric party was formed in May 2017 by a group of former Republicans and Democrats unhappy with the two major parties and seeking an alternative. The platform stresses moderate solutions regarding public education, immigration and the economy that appeal to voters who, for example, don’t want laissez faire capitalism or socialism or the separation of families or porous borders. It also stresses the importance of government reform — term limits for elected officials, campaign finance limits, more nonpartisan elections and ranked-choice voting.

The UUP was one of a group of moderate parties that have formed recently at the state level — the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, the American Party of South Carolina and the Independence Party of Minnesota, for example. After some success in an initial election, these parties have struggled to gain support. Some have folded or failed to maintain ballot access.

By contrast, the United Utah Party has continued to grow from election to election. In 2017, the party ran a congressional candidate in the 3rd District special election that year. Jim Bennett, son of the late Sen. Bob Bennett, became the first nonmajor party candidate to compete in a Utah Debate Commission debate. Ultimately, he won about 10% of the vote. Pundits suggested the party had tried and failed and would soon disappear.

That did not happen. The next year, the party ran 18 more candidates — from Congress to county commission. These candidates gained over 100,000 votes. They won on average about 10% of the vote. Their performance showed that Bennett’s vote total was no fluke. The United Utah Party was winning about that same percentage of the vote with 18 candidates running, not just one.

Fast forward to 2020. Once again, the party did not disappear. Instead, it ran 25 candidates across the state. These candidates competed in state legislative and county contests in eight counties from San Juan and Iron counties in the south to Box Elder and Weber counties in the north, and many places in between. In fact, the party ran more candidates than the Democrats in three counties. One of those was Utah County. The party also ran a statewide candidate for the first time. Our state auditor candidate won 13% of the vote.

The average vote for the state legislative candidates this year was 14%. That constituted a 40% gain in two years. The party also had its best performance in an election. A County Commission candidate in Millard County won 40% of the vote — a highly unusual outcome for a third party. Overall, the party’s candidates won over 200,000 votes — double the number of votes in 2018.

Those votes came despite the fact that most Utah voters still are unaware of the United Utah Party. The party conducted a poll in the spring and found that two-thirds of Utah voters said they did not know anything about the United Utah Party. It is likely that nearly all voters know what the Democratic and Republican parties are and can say something about them. The UUP still suffers a distinct knowledge disadvantage. But when voters know who we are, they are inclined to vote for our candidates.

Is the United Utah Party a major party in Utah yet? No. We admit that. It is still a minor party. But it is not a typical minor party. The party is gaining support across the state.

This may not be the biggest news story of the 2020 Utah election. However, it does indicate that there is something going on in Utah politics that bears scrutiny. Gradually, people are realizing that there are candidates who represent their more moderate views, and these candidates are worthy of their vote. As more people come to that conclusion, Utah may become a three-party system that serves the interests not just of conservative and liberal voters, but moderate voters as well.

Richard Davis

Richard Davis, Orem, was chair of the United Utah Party from 2017 to December 2020.

Hillary Stirling

Hillary Stirling, Pleasant Grove, former vice chair, is the new chair of the United Utah Party.