This year’s primary election, which ends Tuesday, has been more intense and active than most past primaries, especially in the top races. We explore why that is the case, make a few predictions and assess what comes next.

There have been more serious challenges and more turmoil in this year’s primary than most we remember. Why is that, and what does it mean about the state of politics in Utah?

Pignanelli: “The gulf that separates Republicans and Democrats sometimes obscures the divisions and diversity of views that exist within both partisan coalitions.” – Pew Foundation 

Although logic is rare in politics, a solid rationale does explain the many primaries and the emotional volatility surrounding them. Many political veterans conjecture at least four major political parties exist in our country. There are classic Reagan Republicans, Trump Republicans, Progressive Democrats and slowly diminishing moderate Democrats. A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll revealed among Republican respondents, 51% stated former President Donald Trump best represents them, 42% prefer affiliation with U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and 8% chose someone else.

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The primary skirmishes in Utah reflect the dynamics across the country as forces within the GOP wrangle for control. Challengers are questioning incumbents’ fealty to conservative dogma and oftentimes the former president. However, the local difference is that endorsements by the former president are not dominating political advertisements. Tuesday’s election results will determine the future of the Utah Republican Party.

A handful of Democratic primary legislative contests will also be decided on Tuesday. As in other regions, those candidates are competing for progressive support.

The nation’s 2022 congressional midterms will establish the groundwork for the 2024 presidential contests. Similarly, the upcoming Utah primaries will structure the Republican messaging and candidacies for federal, statewide, congressional and legislative offices in 2024. Hopefully, the results on Wednesday morning will make some sense.

Webb: This year’s political environment is highly volatile, and no politician feels comfortable, even longtime incumbents. With high inflation (especially gas prices), a looming recession, a housing crisis, food insecurity, war in Ukraine and political dysfunction and division, the electorate is highly restless. A lot of angry voters are out there, so it’s a dangerous time for incumbent politicians.

That’s why we’ve seen more serious challenges to Utah’s incumbent members of Congress than in many years. Some challengers are attacking from the right, and some from the left. Incumbents have been forced to raise a lot of money and, for a primary election, they are running a surprising amount of advertising.

Congressmen Blake Moore and John Curtis are fending off primary opponents who argue they are too moderate. Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee are being criticized for being too far right. Most years, the incumbents would shrug off token opposition. But this year they are taking it seriously enough to air substantial advertising touting their accomplishments and conservative credentials.

Lee likely isn’t in much danger in the primary, despite two good GOP opponents in Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. But Lee needs to position himself properly for the general election against independent Evan McMullin

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In this volatile environment, the incumbents are wise to take nothing for granted. Politicians who get too comfortable and think they are invincible are vulnerable to defeat. Politicians need to aggressively renew their connections with voters every election. 

Will there be any surprises when votes are counted next Tuesday night?

Pignanelli: Most of the polling released to the public has been limited to the Senate race. This indicates the incumbents, including Mike Lee, will deflect their interparty challenges. Politicos will be paying attention to the margins as indications of internal fractures.

Any election surprises will be from the Republican and Democrat legislative and county office primaries throughout the state. There are whispers among educated observers that several incumbents are struggling with organization and message.

Webb: Despite the difficult political environment, I expect Moore, Stewart, Curtis, Burgess Owens and Lee will win their primaries without great difficulty. The general election will actually be easier for most of them, with the exception, perhaps, of Lee.  

Why is it important that Utahns vote in primary elections?

Pignanelli: Party executives don’t like talking about this, but taxpayers fund primary elections. Thus, they have a right to participate. Primaries oftentimes are more important than general elections in determining state and local public policies. Researching and determining candidates that best reflect a voter’s personal views is important in June and November.

Webb: In Utah, where Republicans enjoy a big majority, the primary election is often where the real and only action is. The primary winner usually becomes the next officeholder. So people who don’t vote in primary elections don’t have much influence in Utah politics.

Primary elections also tend to pull politicians to the extremes. That’s because highly partisan people participate in primary elections in higher numbers than moderates. So if mainstream Utahns want a voice, they need to vote in Tuesday’s primary election. 

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.