Two political insiders are vying to lead the Utah Republican Party as the new state party chair.
GOP state party delegates will choose between Rob Axson or Mike Bird when they gather April 22 at Utah Valley University. Both men have experience serving in party leadership, a scenario different from two years ago when political neophyte Carson Jorgensen won the position.
Jorgensen announced earlier this month he would not seek reelection. Axson and Bird were the only ones to declare before Thursday’s filing deadline.
In an interview with Deseret News, Axson said he believes he can help Republicans navigate the challenges and opportunities confronting the party and the state.
“The Republican Party has a role to play, as one of many organizations in the state, trying to find ways to create and build a vision for the future,” he said. Axson said he has worked in positions in the party, campaigns and as a staffer for elected officials for over 15 years. He said this experience has given him a “unique skill set” that will help him “deliver a bold, transformative vision for what the party can become that will benefit the people of Utah.”
Axson has worked for Sen. Mike Lee for more than a decade and currently runs Lee’s state office. He said he’s helped with over 20 campaigns across the state and has served as a member of the Republican Party State Central Committee for a number of years. Additionally, he previously served as the GOP state party vice chair from 2020 to 2021 under the leadership of former party chair Derek Brown, where he also served with Bird who is the state party treasurer.
Bird was the first to launch his campaign for state party chair and previously told the Deseret News he is running with three priorities in mind: “Growing the party, increasing our influence and keeping Utah red.”
“This is my fourth year serving as treasurer and I’m happy to say we are debt free and have money in the bank,” he said. But Bird said he is worried that the state’s population is growing at a faster rate than party membership. “We’ve kind of lost track of growing our party. We need to refocus our time, energy and resources on getting new members, and in turn we need to educate them and train them and get them more involved,” he said.
Bird works as a finance and operations director for University of Utah Health and has served as the Utah Republican Party treasurer since 2019, with experience as a member of both the Brown and Jorgensen leadership teams. He is also a member of the party’s State Central Committee, the State Executive Committee and the Budget Committee.
Both Axson and Bird spoke of a need for sustained party “momentum.”
“There’s 30 Republican parties in the state of Utah,” Axson said, referencing each of Utah’s counties and the state party. “There’s a meaningful opportunity if each of us builds together so we’re not duplicating efforts and in the process create relevance for the party by building out structures to support our candidates,” he said.
Bird mentioned the disruption that can happen with party leadership turnover. “We create so much momentum as a party leadership, and then unfortunately we constantly have turnover,” he said. “I can keep that momentum and create the consistency we need to accomplish and finish the initiatives we’ve set out to accomplish as a party.”
Neither of the men criticized one another, saying they’ve worked with each other for a long time and consider each other friends. Jorgensen also spoke well of both of them. “Rob and Mike are phenomenal, we can’t ask for better candidates to run the party. I trust them both implicitly,” he said.
Bird said it’s great for the state delegates to have leadership choices so a discussion can take place on what they want to see in the future for the party. “I think (Rob) and I both have a little bit different visions of where our focus should be as a state party right now,” he said.
He also said he believes the GOP has forgotten “the reason we’re in business.” Bird said he wants to “restructure’ the state party so it is better oriented “to educate, to recruit and to win elections.”
Axson also praised his opponent but feels he is more “prepared” to lead the party. “I have a 15 year track record of fighting for the party, winning elections and raising funds, so by electing me the delegates know what they’re going to get.”
Other candidates for GOP state party leadership
As of the filing deadline, Jordan Hess is the only candidate running for vice chair, an office he is currently serving in.
Olivia Dawn, the current party secretary, has also filed to run for re-election. Challenging her for the position are Nicholas Compton and Stafford Palmieri.
McKay Newell, Patrick Russo and Thomas Young have each filed to campaign for the GOP state treasurer seat vacated by Bird.