For some Utah Democrats, switching their party affiliation to Republican is seen as a way to exert more control in primary elections — given the state’s strong GOP majority.
The issue was much bandied about during the 2020 gubernatorial primary, in which Gov. Spencer Cox narrowly defeated former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The practice drew concern from state lawmakers who cracked down last year on what they called “gamesmanship” and “party raiding” by preventing registered voters from switching party affiliation after March 31 in an even-numbered year.
This summer, incumbent Sen. Mike Lee will face challenges from former state Rep. Becky Edwards and community and business leader Ally Isom in a GOP primary. Lee is also being challenged by Democrat Kael Weston and independent Evan McMullin.
Edwards and Isom have both positioned themselves as moderate alternatives to Lee, and have picked up support from Democratic or independent voters.
Will party raiding impact upcoming GOP primary?
While every additional vote counts, the impact of party raiding isn’t so cut and dried, said University of Utah political science professor James Curry. Like so much in politics, he said, in the end it all comes down to numbers.
“I’m highly skeptical you’re going to actually get a ton of people who switch from being a Democrat to being a Republican, and then show up and vote in Republican primaries,” he said. “I’m sure there will be some — like there always are — but they’re a relatively small number. Until I see data on this, I’m going to remain skeptical that this is a large number of people.”
Curry said party switching may be less effective in Utah compared to other states where politically extreme candidates often win primaries. Contrary to the general rule, he said Utahns tend to elect more moderate Republicans in primaries — including Cox, Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. John Curtis and former Gov. Gary Herbert. The state also showed lukewarm support for former President Donald Trump when compared to similarly conservative states.
At least in these larger, statewide races, party switchers don’t move the needle as much if the electorate is already inclined toward moderation, he said. Curry added that Utah’s convention process generally turns out more extreme partisans, but these conservative activists often differ from primary voters at large.
How many voters have switched parties?
Since Jan. 3, the GOP has added around 20,000 active voters, according to the Utah Elections Office. During that same time, Democrats have lost around 8,000 active voters and the number of unaffiliated voters has dropped by nearly 12,000.
The state doesn’t track specific requests to switch affiliation, though, so it’s difficult to determine how many of those changes are the result of voters moving in or out of the state.
Even if all of those 20,000 were party raiders, they would only make up a small amount of the nearly 900,000 registered Republicans in the state. Voter turnout is often very low in off-year primary elections, Curry said, further diluting the chances Democrats or independent voters can have a significant impact.
According to a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll, Lee leads all primary challengers with 67% of respondents saying they would vote for him, compared to 19% for Edwards and 4% for Isom. Lee’s support drops to 43% when compared to a general election field, although 24% of respondents said they don’t know.
Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan — who sponsored the bill last year to limit party switching — said on Twitter that the latest party affiliation numbers “show the HB197 switching deadline is working to limit the number of party raiders.”
In the statement, he said the GOP is a “big tent party” and that he “invite(s) all Utahns to join or rejoin” the party.
“However,” he said, “efforts to urge individuals to ‘hold their nose’ and disingenuously switch their parties in order to game the system and change the outcome of a party’s primary election is unethical, wrong, and undermines our electoral system.”
Are GOP worries about party raiding misguided?
Former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate and environmental lawyer David Garbett disagrees, saying the legislation and other pushback against party raiding are misguided.
“That’s really sad,” he said. “If you’re a party whose ideas can’t stand up to more open participation ... if your ideas can’t weather having average Utahns come and vote, you ought to reevaluate what you’re doing. Clearly, this is a game for you. ... That’s not American, that’s ridiculous.”
Garbett is a self-described “crossover” voter, who sees participation in Republican primaries as the only way to affect change in a “one-party state.” Clean air, immigration and education are at the top of his list of issues he hopes he can influence.
“Our democracy is too important to concede to partisanship,” he said, adding that he knows many Democrats who don’t switch because they prefer not to be associated with prominent Republicans like Trump. “Is it more important for your identity that you not have an R by your name? Or is it more important for you to see problems addressed? Is it more important for you to help us build a healthy democracy?”
Garbett feels that his impact can be most pronounced on smaller races for state representatives and city leaders, but said he hopes his vote will help Utah move on from Lee.
“Where Mike was before Donald Trump got elected and where he is today — he’s clearly turned himself 180 degrees,” Garbett said. “I think he’s a poor representative of our state, so it’s definitely time for him to go.”
Is it too late to change parties?
Although the party switching deadline passed last week, Garbett pointed out that unaffiliated voters can still register as Republicans up until the June 28 primary.
He said he doesn’t want to see outcomes that are unrepresentative of Utah voters, but thinks that unpopular policies “driven by small groups of people who participate at those pinch points” are turning off a lot of voters.
“I think what we’re getting right now is the aberration,” he said.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly spelled Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s last name as Tuescher. It is spelled Teuscher.