As surrounding states in the West continue to trend Democratic, will Utah remain a red stronghold? Or will it eventually become overtaken in an emerging sea of blue?
That’s what’s at stake for Utah Republicans in the race for the Utah GOP’s next chairperson, a position largely off the radar of a public consumed by COVID-19 updates and the promise of better weather. Yet when delegates make their selection from five candidates at this weekend’s state convention, it will help determine the future of their party and its influence on Utah politics, said Derek Brown, the state GOP’s outgoing chairman, who announced last month he wouldn’t be seeking another term to spend more time with his family.
“Anyone who is paying attention to the trends and to the numbers who is a Republican should be very concerned,” Brown told the Deseret News in an interview this week. “The demographic and geographic trends are not boding well for Republicans — both nationally and here in the state of Utah.”
Rewind to the year 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore for president. That year, the entire western U.S. voted red except for Oregon, California, Washington and purple New Mexico — though New Mexico tipped blue on a fraction of a percentage point. Since then, “one by one we’ve had states surrounding Utah that have flipped blue,” Brown said.
New Mexico, though it voted red in 2004, flipped Democratic in 2008 for former President Barack Obama, and has since stayed blue. Other purple states like Colorado and Nevada have faded blue. Then Arizona, a state that has voted red since 2000, made the flip last year, when the state turned blue for President Joe Biden.
“That is a Democratic shift in the western U.S. that does not bode well for Republicans, and we have not done a good job nationally of (addressing it),” Brown said, describing the difficulties Republicans have had engaging millennial voters and unifying around their platform.
Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight who is a well-known predictor of political elections, last year said “people underrate the chance that Utah could become a swing state in another couple of cycles.” In 2017, Silver told the Deseret News he’s fascinated by Utah because it looks and breathes like a blue state, even though it’s traditionally red.
He said Utah “increasingly has the markers of a blue state, meaning high education levels, big tech sector, young population. So you can kind of envision a world in eight years, 12 years, 16 years in which Utah behaves more like Colorado or something, right?”
“And this was before COVID,” Brown said.
Add in the pandemic, which Brown said has put these concerning trends for Republicans on “steroids” because of the number of people moving from other states like New York or California and “flooding” Utah.
“The people coming here ... that may help our economy, but it will definitely have an impact on the political landscape,” Brown said.
So while the Utah GOP for decades has “had the luxury of a super majority,” Brown said assuming that “luxury” will last forever could spell trouble for Utah Republicans.
“The luxury of a super majority can also allow a party to be sloppy and unfocused and still win elections,” Brown said. “My concern is we may not have that luxury in the next five to 10 years. And whether that is the case has everything to do with the party remaining strong and funded.”
Brown said he saw it happen in Arizona last year, where he said a “weak and fractured party focused on infighting” lost in a crucial presidential year and lost a Republican seat in the U.S. Senate.
“My concern is whenever a party becomes weak and unfunded and unfocused and allows itself to engage in infighting, the day follows the night. The party will begin to lose elections,” he said. “And we (in Utah) have not done that in the last few years. We have reversed that trend. But as a party we need to remain vigilant — or else we will go the way of our surrounding states.”
The state of Utah’s Republican Party
Before Brown was elected in May 2019, the Utah GOP was plagued by inner turmoil: divided into camps by years of infighting over the controversial election law SB54 and in debt, owing more than $137,000.
“They couldn’t pay their bills,” Brown said. “They had just lost a number of races including a congressional seat, and the fundraising was abysmal.”
In 2018, former Rep. Ben McAdams beat former Rep. Mia Love and became the first Democrat to win a congressional seat in Utah since 2012.
“Fast forward two years,” Brown said. “We pulled the party out of debt within a month or two. ... The party is unified in a way that it hasn’t been, notwithstanding the challenges we’ve faced. We’ve raised over $1 million. And we’ve won almost every election we’ve set out to win, including the seat in Congress that we lost.”
Rep. Burgess Owens last year defeated McAdams and took back Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat for Republicans.
Now, the Utah GOP must continue in the “positive direction” Brown said. Who emerges during the weekend convention to become chairperson, vice chairman, secretary and treasurer will set the future course.
Who will lead Utah Republicans?
“The most important thing for a party is to support the candidates and support the brand and have an organization that is well funded and organizationally sound,” Brown said. “For me, this election is about are we going to continue to move that direction, or are we going to major in minor things? Sometimes I think political parties can focus on internal squabbles that don’t necessarily help them win elections.”
Brown said he needed to remain “neutral” ahead of Saturday’s convention, so he didn’t have any endorsements or anti-endorsements for the candidates vying to take his place.
But Brown did list some characteristics he believes the Utah GOP’s chairperson needs to have, including the basic ability to raise funds effectively, the ability to understand how elections are managed and won — while also having the temperament and ability to unite Utah’s Republicans rather than divide.
Unity and civility is a style of politics employed by Gov. Spencer Cox — who successfully won his election last year and has seen upward trending approval ratings. It’s also a style that’s the opposite of the leader national and the majority of Utah Republicans coalesced around in 2016 and 2020 — former President Donald Trump.
Trump’s divisive and polarizing style ultimately fell short on the national level in November last year. In Utah, division and polarization is not a style that’s typically successful — and not one that Brown said will position Utah’s GOP for success.
“Someone who is a unifier and someone who cannot just recognize that you have people all over the political spectrum in one party, but someone who actually reaches out to all of them to bring them together is the best way forward,” Brown said. “I think someone who is divisive and focused on their own personal agenda, not only will they not unify the party, but they will force anyone who differs with them from the party.
“And for a state like Utah that may trend blue,” Brown said, “that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to do.”
The candidates to lead Utah’s Republican Party
Four — five before one dropped out Friday, less than 24 hours before the convention — candidates are running to succeed Brown, and they range in backgrounds and demographics. A look at who they are provides a picture of the GOP in Utah.
There’s Tina Cannon, a former Morgan County GOP chairwoman and Morgan County councilwoman who would be the second woman to lead Utah’s GOP, behind Enid Mickelsen who served in 2007.
There’s Stewart Peay, current chairman of the Utah County Republican Party who’s been endorsed by Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, among other legislative leaders.
There’s Brad Baker, who at 22 is likely the youngest state party candidate in Utah’s party’s history.
There’s Carson Jorgensen, a 31-year-old sheep rancher with a passion for agriculture and public lands.
Until he dropped out on Friday, also in the running was former Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Scott Miller, who resigned amid controversy last month, but for which he has since rescinded his apology.
Despite the controversy and backlash, Miller stayed in the race until giving notice to delegates less than 24 hours before Saturday’s convention that he was withdrawing, telling delegates in an email issued Friday if he were to win the chairman position and if litigation follows the allegations, he’d be “placed in a position of ‘conflict of interest’ due to my role as a key witness in this matter.”
“If I become your state chair, this obvious conflict of interest would not be fair to you, the delegates who elected me,” he wrote in his email to delegates. “I would be in a position of defending myself from the adverse actions of the very organization you elected me to lead. I cannot in good faith place you and me in that position.”
Miller, who lives in Riverton and was chairman of the Salt Lake County GOP for more than three years, made headlines last month after he was accused by multiple women within the Salt Lake County GOP for allowing “bullying” to occur within the party.
While his four opponents agreed to phone interviews with the Deseret News this week for this story, Miller did not accept multiple requests for an interview and only answered questions via email before he announced he was dropping out Friday.
After initially calling the women accusers “sore losers who failed to win their respective races” in an email last month that preempted the first media report of the accusations, Miller later resigned and apologized, saying he “made a mistake with how I handled” the complaints.
Since then, Miller’s backtracked.
In an email sent to the Deseret News on Tuesday, Miller said he had withdrawn his apology.
“I stand by my actions,” he wrote “Throughout the campaign, I immediately addressed any and all issues and complaints and I have documentation and witnesses to prove it. I never heard several of the complaints until it was presented in the press.”
Miller also wrote he’s been “Kavanaughed,” comparing himself to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the federal judge who was accused of sexual assault from the 1980s during his 2018 confirmation hearings.
“I believe certain women and others strategically timed salatious (sic) allegations against me to derail my campaign for state chair,” he wrote. “Many Utah Republicans seem to believe in ‘guilt by accusation’ and seem intent to deny due process to the accused. This is very disturbing.”
He added: “I believe we have an obligation to investigate,” Miller wrote. “We need to get to the bottom of this issue. Let’s have due process, a fair investigation, and let the public see the facts.”
Before he dropped out, Miller argued he was the right person to lead Utah’s GOP, saying under his leadership the Salt Lake County GOP “successfully turned the Salt Lake County Council from purple to red.” He wrote to the Deseret News he’d keep Utah from turning purple by seeking to “expand the Republican tent. We expanded the tent in Salt Lake County. We recruited and encouraged good candidates,” saying those candidates included women, and people from diverse backgrounds. “We helped elect a greek, a doctor, and Congressman Burgess Owens, an African American.”
Cannon, 53, has 20 years of experience within the Utah Republican Party. She served as chairwoman for the Morgan County GOP, as well as a state convention committee member and a state convention credentials chairwoman. She was twice elected as a Morgan County councilwoman. She ran a bid last year to represent Utah’s 1st Congressional District, but faltered in the Republican convention.
If it’s a strong organizational structure and fundraising backbone the Utah GOP needs, Cannon argues she’s the “only candidate in this race” that has that fundraising experience, pointing to her congressional run.
It wasn’t until after Brown announced he was stepping down and she started getting phone calls from supporters that Cannon said she’d considered running to replace him. And then when the Salt Lake County GOP/Miller controversy hit headlines, and she said her “phone blew up.”
“I was having a lot of friends in the party, particularly male friends, who were very concerned about the message this was sending and felt like it was time for another perspective,” she said.
There are “very few women in Republican politics in Utah,” Cannon said, and “we each have our stories.” But she said that story did not represent the “majority of men” in Utah’s GOP, noting she’s had “incredible mentors, supporters and donors.” But she worried that story wasn’t being told “and that’s sad to me.”
“Because when women see this, it discourages them from running,” she said. “Politics is hard. Politics is a blood sport. And women don’t run for the same reasons that men do. Women run to do something. Men run to be something.”
So, Cannon said she decided to “step into this chaos” — a decision she made 45 minutes before the filing deadline on April 1 — in order to “encourage good women to run.” When other women don’t see other women “who are strong enough, qualified, and win, they don’t run,” she said.
“This is a difficult thing,” Cannon added, “because I don’t want to run as a woman. I’m not running because I‘m a woman. I’m the best candidate. ... I have by far the most experience and the best background.”
Running as the only female candidate isn’t a message that will resonate with Utah GOP delegates, she said. “It’s about being well qualified.”
At the same time, increased diversity is what the Utah Republican party needs as it looks to the future, Cannon said. “We need to have a diversity of voices at the table because we are losing that demographic at the Republican Party.”
Peay, 47, a lawyer who lives in Alpine, was elected as chairman of the Utah County GOP in April 2019. By day, Peay works as a partner at Snell & Wilmer, where he’s worked for 18 years. He also served in the Utah National Guard for 13 years, including a tour in Iraq.
In his two years as Utah County GOP chairman, Peay said he spent that time “unifying Utah County Republicans, which is no small task.” When he first came to the post, Peay said the county Republicans couldn’t get along to make decisions at the executive committee level, and he attributed that as a big reason why Love lost to McAdams in 2018.
Last year, Peay said the Utah County GOP energized more voters and helped push Owens to victory.
“One of the key things I did in Utah County is listen to everybody,” Peay said. “I encourage all parties to bring forward their positions, then as a leadership group we figure out a resolution that works for our party. It’s not perfect for everyone, but it’s great for the party, and that’s what we need.”
The emerging blue sea around Utah in the West, the changing political landscape and the threat it poses to Republicans’ future in Utah is “why I’m running” for the statewide party chairperson position.
During the past two years, Peay credited Brown for “getting the party back on track, and I feel like we need to stay on that track if we’re going to defend our traditional Republican values and strongholds here in Utah.”
As Utah’s population changes and as more people move in from states like California, Peay said the Utah Republican Party needs to “control its message.”
“We need to explain there is so much great economic opportunity here in Utah because for 40 years the Utah Republican Party has dominated state and local politics,” Peay said. “We need to educate people about that and help them understand that if we keep Utah Republican, those same opportunities will still be here for our children and even our grandchildren.”
Cox, Henderson, legislative leaders including House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, and others endorsed Peay in a letter circulated to delegates, mailed using the Utah Republican Party’s indicia — a service that’s offered to all Utah GOP candidates for cheaper postage.
Peay said those endorsements show he knows how to “build a team.”
“And that’s what we plan to do,” he said, along with his vice chairperson running mate Austin Cox. He says he plans to do that with a unifying style. “The role of state party leadership is to build a bigger tent. It’s not to divide. It’s not to offend. Rather, it’s to build a team and to get that team to coalesce around the ideas and values of the Republican Party.”
Jorgensen, 31, of Mount Pleasant in Sanpete County, is a sixth-generation sheep rancher in a family that’s lived in Utah for more than 150 years, he said. His family businesses are Skyline Sheep Co., as well as Skyline Bit and Spur, a small business that ships horse bridles and silver.
His family’s heritage, Jorgensen said, tells the story of “why this race is important to me.”
“We rely heavily on public lands,” he said, describing how the sheep industry helped build Utah’s infrastructure. So that’s why he’s getting involved in politics, he said.
“Unfortunately, politics shapes a lot of these things,” he said. “Politics is getting increasingly militant around agriculture, and if we don’t start taking a key role in policy, agriculture is going to be one that is going to lose out big time, especially here in Utah where 75% of the state is federal land and most of it is used for agriculture.”
Jorgensen pointed to Biden’s “30 by 30” climate change policy and said “it’s going to drastically affect the agriculture sector here in Utah and it’s going to ruin the legacy of my family.”
So, Jorgensen said he wants to get involved to save the future of agriculture and public lands in Utah.
“I don’t want to see the history of Utahns thrown under the bus for progressive policy,” he said.
It’s not the first time Jorgensen has stepped into politics. Last year, he sent a letter to then-Vice President Mike Pence, members of Congress and others detailing the impacts to sheep ranching of the acquisition of a Colorado lamb processing facility, which led to an investigation. Jorgensen also ran an unsuccessful bid against Rep. Chris Stewart last year.
On his campaign website, Jorgensen discusses “expanding the tent” in Utah’s GOP, in order to attract new voters, especially young voters. He also prioritizes strengthening rural Utah, including wildfire mitigation, outdoor recreation, water quality, food supply chain and more to “bridge the urban and rural divide.”
Jorgensen also states Utah’s GOP must “tackle the issue” of SB54 and strengthen the party’s convention system.
Baker, 22, a Weber State University student who lives in Sunset, said one of the biggest reasons why he’s decided to get involved is because he’s sick of the “mudslinging, backstabbing” that’s gone on at the national level.
“I firmly believe that’s not what being a Republican is about,” Baker said. “I would argue it’s something that both sides are guilty of, and as such the biggest thing we need as a party but as the state of Utah as a whole is more unity and more hope for the future.”
Baker acknowledges that he does not have as much political experience as his opponents, but he argued he’s the “best equipped candidate” to make the party more appealing to younger voters and therefore secure the party’s future.
“We also need to have more voices in the room from a wider variety of backgrounds, a wider variety of life experiences because how goes the Republican Party, so goes the state of Utah,” he said. “By voting for me, the delegates would get a candidate who is emphasizing unity, emphasizing greater diversity in encouraging people to run who might not otherwise.”
Baker said he would expand the party’s accessibility by modernizing the party’s tactics through use of social media and technology, make sure caucus nights are better advertised so younger Utahns would know how to get involved, and consider moving caucus night to the weekend to help make it more accessible to those who work during the week.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Tina Cannon would be the first woman to serve as Utah GOP party chairwoman. The first woman to serve in that role was Enid Mickelsen. The story also misstated Stewart Peay credited Scott Miller with putting the party on the right track. He credited Derek Brown.