The state of Utah embodies some fascinating political contrasts on display this election season. We are a conservative state, but we tend toward mainstream conservatism. We voted for former President Donald Trump, but we don’t love Trump. We do have many unflinching far-right conservatives, but they don’t dominate the state. We explore these interesting dynamics.
Utah’s two senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, represent different wings of the Republican Party. How can the state elect senators with such different approaches to politics?
Pignanelli: “Utah conservatism is a reminder to the American right of its more expansive, optimistic past. It also offers a warning of where Republicans’ current pessimistic course may lead.” — The Economist
As an Italian-Irish Catholic native Utahn, I possess the advantage of making public statements that my friends of the predominant faith cannot. So here it goes. Pragmatic and compassionate elements of conservatism in this state is a direct influence from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Most local Republicans trust classic conservatism ideals of the free exchange of capital and labor (which now include expression of ideas). In Utah, these principles are enhanced with religious convictions that resulted in passage of the anti-discrimination amendments, acceptance of refugees and the critical compact on immigration.
Lee and Romney adhere to these ideologies. But the differences are of style. Romney voted with Trump more than Lee, but the senior senator is publicly supportive of the former president.
Polls indicate most Republicans prefer Lee over Romney. Except those who identify themselves as very active Latter-day Saints like Romney. These differences may be explained by the Trump factor, which will disappear when the former president does.
Fortunately for all Utahns, what made our state great has an important impact on political deliberations.
Webb: Most Utah Republicans, with quite a few exceptions, want their party to be a big-tent party as envisioned by conservative icon Ronald Reagan. So there is plenty of room in the party for both Mike Lee and Mitt Romney.
Personally, I find things to like and dislike about both senators. It has driven me a little crazy to watch Lee oppose the SB54/Count My Vote effort, which has opened the party nominating system to all Republicans instead of an exclusive few. And I’ve found Romney’s obsession with Trump, voting twice to remove him from office via the impeachment process, to be unfortunate and very divisive within the party. But I also like many things about both senators, including their battles against left-wing legislation that I think will harm the country.
So I think it’s quite natural for Utahns to elect two senators with rather different political philosophies. Neither of them is hugely popular within certain constituencies. Both need to work on their approval ratings. And that’s OK. I respect politicians who use their political capital to do hard things even when it’s not popular (and even when I disagree).
Utah’s governor is a bona fide moderate. The Legislature is more conservative, although GOP legislative leadership is not right wing. What does this tell us about Utah politics?
Pignanelli: Grumbling about the state Legislature is a Utah pastime. Unfortunately, what is overlooked is that the legislative branch is the purest form of representative democracy in the country. When lawmakers make statements or sponsor bills deemed problematic, usually such are in direct response to constituents (and usually activists in either party). Further, the media loves to cover those officials pushing controversial items. Always ignored are the facts that Utah is well managed and securely financed because of the Legislature.
Webb: I’ve written previously that many years ago, when I was political editor at the Deseret News, I interviewed William Rees-Mogg, a distinguished British citizen who was editor of The Times in London and a member of the House of Lords. He was on a trip across America, writing a series of columns about American politics and culture in various regions. He was a brilliant and incisive observer, analyst and writer.
I will always remember him telling me that he detected in Utah a different kind of conservatism that he found rather refreshing. He said it was a responsible, optimistic, forward-looking conservatism, not an angry, bitter, conspiratorial brand of conservatism he found in some states and regions.
I think that positive sort of conservatism is embodied in our governor and in our Legislature. They serve Utah very well. Utah’s pragmatic and compassionate brand of conservatism is why Democrats have been unable to gain a foothold for nearly 40 years.
Two of Utah’s U.S. House members are rather moderate, while two others are strong conservatives. Is the political makeup of their districts the reason for these differences?
Pignanelli: Districts 1 and 3 are perceived the most conservative, yet produced members of Congress thought to be more moderate than their colleagues. But the reality is different. As with the dynamics described with the Utah’s U.S. senators, Blake Moore and John Curtis subscribe to the same conservative principles as Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens. But they just exude a different flavor expressing them.
Webb: All of Utah’s congressional districts are quite conservative, and Utah’s four members of Congress can fit within the Utah GOP big tent.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: email@example.com.