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Frustrated Utah Republicans, Democrats form new centrist political party

SALT LAKE CITY — Some disaffected Republicans and Democrats who say extreme views are co-opting their parties have decided to carve out a middle ground in Utah politics.

Taking a centrist approach, the group announced the formation of the United Utah Party at the state Capitol on Monday. Its logo is Utah's iconic Delicate Arch.

"We are not forming another extremist, fringe political party," said BYU political science professor Richard Davis, a former Utah County Democratic Party chairman. "We are people who are in the center of the political spectrum."

Jim Bennett, son of the late GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, said he has been a man without a political home for a long time. And he and Davis say they're not alone in their frustration with the major parties.

"We don't think disaffected Republicans and Democrats have a place go," he said.

Davis acknowledged the new party faces an uphill battle to establish itself. "We understand there's a couple of Goliaths out there and we're David," he said.

The United Utah Party is working to gather the 2,000 signatures needed to become a registered political party in the state. It hopes to have that done in time get a candidate on the ballot for the 3rd Congressional District special election to replace Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is stepping down June 30.

Bennett said the party was in the works for some time and the special election wasn't originally part of the plan. The party is also recruiting candidates for the 2018 election.

"We're in it for the long haul," he said.

University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said the new party has a chance to be viable "but they need an upheaval."

"It needs a divisive issue that in a visceral way moves people away from the Republican Party or the Democratic Party," he said.

Chambless, who teaches a class on political parties, said the party could catch on if it proves to having staying power after the 2018 election.

Davis said the party has some initial startup money from donors and is soliciting funds. He figures it will cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to run the party.

"The Republican Party can do it without any donors," said former GOP state legislator Bryson Garbett, taking a jab at the Utah GOP, which lost contributors due to its expensive and unsuccessful court fight against Utah's new election law known as SB54.

Bennett called the Republicans' lawsuit over how parties nominate candidates for a primary election "tilting at windmills" and said the new party would not "squander" its resources.

The United Utah Party plans to hold open primaries and lower the threshold for candidates to get on the ballot in convention. It also supports term limits for statewide and legislative offices, stricter campaign finance laws and an independent redistricting commission.

The party platform calls for free religious expression, endorses the right to own guns, favors increased education spending and supports abortion in the case of rape, incest and danger to the mother.

Davis said the party won't impose a litmus test on people.

The new party comes as state Republicans over the weekend elected a new, moderate chairman, Rob Anderson.

Bennett said he sees that as a concession to party members upset over fighting SB54.

"But if there's no reasonable alternative, if there's no real competition, the Republican Party will go back to its default position at the far right," he said. "I think that's where they're going to be heading in the long term if they don't have somebody to compete with them."