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Who gets to choose? Republicans brewing battle over the future of Utah’s caucus system


SALT LAKE CITY — Delegates to the state convention made national news this week when they rejected several Republican incumbents who faced challengers, including Gov. Spencer Cox, who saw his opponent, state Rep. Phil Lyman, win the party’s nomination to the primary ballot.

Cox collected signatures, and so he, too, will appear on the ballot for the primary — which he is expected to win, according to a Noble Predictive Insights poll — but Cox and other state politicos seemed frustrated not just with the outcome, but with the process itself.

The caucus-convention system has staunch defenders — like Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Axson and Sen. Mike Lee — who argue it allows candidates with no money, or friends with deep pockets, to get on the primary ballot. They say it also leads to better citizen engagement in the political process, as delegates spend hours meeting with candidates, attending their forums, and engaging in grassroots, face-to-face politics in a way that is rare today.

But detractors point to the only 9% Republican turnout to disorganized caucus night and the bad behavior of some convention delegates that included angry confrontations and this year, at least one fistfight that Axson said was quickly broken up by a county sheriff who was the convention’s sergeant-at-arms. Opponents of the caucus-convention system also see it as siloing off the power to choose Republican candidates to a small group of people — there are almost 1 million registered Republican voters in Utah compared to around 4,000 delegates chosen by an even smaller Republican minority.

It’s raised the question — should Republicans abandon the caucus-convention system?

When Cox took the stage at the convention Saturday, he was met by loud boos, making it difficult for him to deliver his message. During his remarks to the thousands of delegates gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center, he appeared to go off-script from his prepared remarks.

“I’m a little worried about our caucus-convention system,” Cox said. “There are a whole bunch of people out there who want to get rid of this. … I hope you’re not giving them more ammunition today.”

But others, including Axson, saw it differently. To him, Cox was “poking” at the delegates who were booing him. That doesn’t mean the “booers” were in the right, Axson said, calling their behavior “ridiculous.”

“But his speech also kind of poked at those folks who had been poking at him, and so you elicit that type of response,” he said. “And I think it was a calculated decision on his part to address what he sees as inappropriateness or unfairness from one segment of the party, and then they responded.”

Matt Lusty, campaign spokesman for Cox, said, “Like Gov. Cox mentioned in his speech, his predecessor Gov. Gary Herbert lost the delegate vote but won by 44% when all Republican voters were allowed to vote. Gov. Mike Leavitt had a similar experience at convention and later won his primary by 25%. Gov. Cox is grateful for the opportunity to defend his conservative record to all Republican voters.”

“Utah has benefited from conservative leadership under Gov. Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, including the largest tax cuts in Utah history, legislation protecting the sanctity of life, and leadership willing to stand up for Utah parents and children in the fight with Big Tech,” said Lusty.

There was broad agreement among the party leaders interviewed for this article that bad behavior at the convention was unacceptable, and delegates should not shout down candidates or engage in family-unfriendly behavior. But there was disagreement over whether Cox was right, that the behavior of the delegates was so out of hand that it would give “ammunition” to those who oppose the caucus-convention system.

The system is unique to Utah, giving state delegates who are elected at neighborhood caucuses the first pass at choosing the party’s nominees. The candidates who are endorsed by at least 60% of delegates get the party’s help in the lead-up to the Republican primary, which this year falls on June 25. Candidates can also gather signatures to appear on the ballot, but it is costly and time-consuming.

Mike Lee: Without a convention, candidates would be insulated from voters

Lee agreed that the anti-incumbent feeling among delegates this year was particularly strong, attributing it in part to anger among voters who are still dealing with the rising inflation, which he said was the “consequences of large, expensive, expansive, ever-growing governments at the state level, at the local level, and especially at the national level.”

Without the convention process, Lee said candidates would have fewer opportunities to engage in face-to-face dialogue with their constituents. “If all you had were primaries and the general election, with no convention process, there will always be several layers of insulation between the candidate and the voters,” he said.

Even still, Lee said he doesn’t like the “booing” and doesn’t find it helpful. “I think we’re better off as a party, and the convention functions better without that,” adding he thinks delegates should listen and ask questions of the candidates instead. But, he said he doesn’t think as many people were booing at the convention as their volume would suggest.

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox, candidate for governor, speaks during the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox, candidate for governor, speaks during the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Photo: Marielle Scott, Deseret News)

Axson: Cox was ‘stoking’ bad behavior among delegates

While Axson said there may have been some “bad actors” among the delegates, he said he doesn’t think “we should go and slander the total group just because of one or two experiences or a small percentage of people that passionately booed.” He also doesn’t think this type of bad behavior is unique to Utah. “I think it’s more indicative of what’s wrong right now in our country with too much vitriol and anger.”

Axson said he stressed to the delegates multiple times that they should listen respectfully to candidates, even at one point saying something like, as he recalled, “The First Amendment is important, but your First Amendment rights don’t allow you to then remove somebody else’s ability to exercise their First Amendment rights. That’s what we see from the liberal woke left. We’re better than that.”

On the treatment of Cox, Axson said, he thought the remarks Cox gave “were stoking (the reaction) … and it was a calculated decision on his part.”

“And he felt he needed to call it out, and more power to him. He has every right to say what he wanted to say as as a candidate,” he said.

Delegate: Convention ‘seems very polarizing’

For some delegates it was more than just the booing that raised concerns. DeLaina Tonks, who has participated in the caucus-convention system as a delegate, precinct chair and legislative district chair, said she thinks at this point the system has run its course. When she was growing up, she said her dad used to take her to conventions where she learned to value the system because it showed “that regular normal people really could make a difference across the state.”

But now, Tonks said, she doesn’t believe the system achieves its goal of neighborhood representation. “It seems very polarizing on both sides,” she said, adding she does not believe some of the candidates who come out of convention resonate with the general population.

Henderson said her family experienced “vulgarity and viciousness” at the convention, and Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, and volunteer Brian Maxwell were among those who also said they or their family members had bad experiences at the convention.

Axson said he shares the frustration of delegates and candidates who experienced bad behavior by fellow delegates.

“I think we’re better than that. I think we can be examples for a path forward that is principled and committed to what we believe in, but done in a way that is aspirational instead of vitriolic, so I share that frustration,” he said. “However, I don’t want us to lose sight of what the vast majority of our delegates were like and how they express themselves.”

He expressed gratitude to the delegates who he said spent “countless hours” preparing for the convention, and at the convention itself — which opened at 7 a.m. and ended just before midnight.

“I saw so many people step up and help. I saw people become friends and engage in friendly debate and discussion. I saw people assisting one another when they had a question or when they needed food, or even people jumping in and volunteering on something when they saw a need,” he said. “There were times during the convention where groups would break out in patriotic songs. That’s what the experience was of the vast majority of our delegates. And so yes, I’m disheartened by the behavior of a few. But I’m inspired by the expression of patriotism and commitment from the vast majority of the Utah Republican delegates this year.”

An attendee jeers Utah's 1st Congressional District candidate Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
An attendee jeers Utah’s 1st Congressional District candidate Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, during the Utah Republican Party convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Photo: Marielle Scott, Deseret News)

Opponents say convention doesn’t reflect most Utah Republicans

Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, said he does not support the caucus-convention system because he does not believe that it is “reflective of everyday Utahns.” Count My Vote is an organization that advocates for increasing ballot access in Utah.

Sen. Mitt Romney earned a spot on the ballot but lost to state Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, at convention in 2018, then ended up winning the primary. When Rob Bishop retired from his congressional seat in 2020, Rep. Blake Moore earned a spot on the ballot but didn’t end up beating Kerry Gibson at the convention. He went on to win the primary that year.

When asked whether delegates at the convention chose candidates who were too extreme, Lee pointed to Romney earning a spot on the ballot in 2018 and Cox winning at convention in 2020. Lee, too, found a path to the primary through a convention, in 2010, alongside businessman Tim Bridgewater, after they defeated incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett.

But, while caucuses are intended to have a group of delegates represent a neighborhood, Morgan said that’s not how he thinks it goes. “I’m currently a county delegate and state delegate. I have participated very heavily in the caucus-convention process, but very, very few of my neighbors do.”

Not only does Morgan think the caucus-convention system isn’t reflective of Utahns, he also doesn’t buy the argument that it gives candidates with not a lot of money an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise. “I’d say that historically candidates spend more in the caucus convention system than they do in a primary election.”

Since the group of delegates is smaller than a pool of primary voters would be, Morgan said, “Money has even more influence in the caucus-convention path than it does in the primary path.”

Attendees put their hands over their hearts during the performance of the national anthem at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Attendees put their hands over their hearts during the performance of the national anthem at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Supporters praise citizen involvement

A former candidate for the 3rd Congressional District and Utah Young Republicans chairman Zac Wilson said otherwise. Wilson, 29, told the Deseret News that the caucus-convention system gave him an opportunity that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. “I would not have gotten 38.7% by the end if we were all in an open primary.”

State Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, told the Deseret News that he supported the caucus-convention system because of candidates like Maloy. “The delegates vetted her very well; she won them over. She didn’t have a lot of money to run, and she ended up being victorious over a much better-known candidate,” said Johnson.

Johnson acknowledged that there’s sometimes “boisterous” activity at convention, but he’s overall supportive of the system. “I think it allows for normal people to run for office, and the one with the most money often does not necessarily win.”

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he’s collected signatures and participated in the caucus system, and something that he has valued about the system is getting to hear the perspectives of the delegates and learning from them. “I probably wouldn’t have had those experiences without the caucus-convention system.”

But Weiler said there are some instances where primary voters overwhelmingly reject who the delegates vote for at convention. “The only conclusion is that they’re not representing their neighbors like they’re supposed to.”

Still, Weiler said, it’s too early to know if there’s going to be a movement to get rid of the caucus-convention system. “I do think you’re going to see more and more incumbents say, ‘I’m just going to do signatures only and not waste my time with convention.'”

AG candidate says a lawsuit might be coming over signature gathering

At one point, an initiative was in the works to get rid of the caucus-convention system altogether and switch to a primary. State legislators instead passed a bill in 2014 to allow signature gathering.

The Utah Republican Party then challenged the signature gathering law in court. But after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a federal appeals court’s decision to uphold the law, it remained in place.

Frank Mylar, a candidate for Utah attorney general, told the Deseret News on Monday afternoon that he has been approached by potential plaintiffs to file a suit on their behalf to challenge the law. Mylar came just short of receiving the necessary 60% to be the party’s official nominee when he got 59.76% of the vote on Saturday, while Rachel Terry advanced with 40.24%. A third candidate, Derek Brown, gathered enough signatures to qualify ahead of convention.

Anti-incumbent mood among certain segments of the Republican base

Weiler said he noticed that during this year’s convention, “The margins of victory against the incumbents was larger than normal.”

Lyman, R-Blanding, bested incumbent Cox at the convention as he collected 67.5% of the vote. During his speech, Cox referred to previous gubernatorial candidates Mike Leavitt and Gary Herbert, who lost at convention and then won their primaries (and later, the general election).

Cox wasn’t the only incumbent to face challenges. Moore earned a spot on the ballot by receiving 45.14% of the vote (he also gathered signatures) but came second to Ogden electrician Paul Miller.

As things run into the night, delegates start to tire at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
As things run into the night, delegates start to tire at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Celeste Maloy: Convention was a ‘long, miserable day for the delegates’

Maloy emerged from a special Republican nominating convention last year as the Republican party’s nominee to run for the remainder of Rep. Chris Stewart’s two-year term. Stewart endorsed Maloy, his former staffer, for the seat.

While last year’s convention was challenging for Maloy, this year’s convention may have been even more so, after Lee endorsed her opponent Colby Jenkins late last week.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Maloy was not ready to comment on Lee’s endorsement of Jenkins, but she said as a politician who has been “all in” on the caucus-convention system, and who feels like she would not be a member of Congress without the system, she was still concerned with what she saw on Saturday.

“It was a very long, miserable day for the delegates. And there was bad behavior in that room that I don’t think really fits with our Utah values,” she said.

That said, she said she still “deeply appreciates the delegates this year. There were a lot of races with a lot of candidates. And they got messaging from all of us on a really regular basis. They were amazing at showing up at events, at watching videos, reading emails, and they tried to do their research and really figure out who the best candidates were. I just expected more decorum and civility.”

About the anger expressed by some delegates, Maloy said she understands a lot of voters are frustrated right now, given the upheaval of the past few years.

“People are just unsettled right now — in politics, in everything,” she said. “The world’s changing fast; it’s really complicated. And when I’m out campaigning, I can see that people are frustrated, and they want something better. They want things to change. They want politicians to respond to the pressures they’re feeling, the tensions they’re dealing with, and the fears they have. And I think that’s where a lot of this anger comes from.”

On whether candidates should be able to gather signatures to appear on the ballot, Lee said he takes issue with a 2014 law that created the signature pathway to the ballot, saying he does not believe the state should interfere in private party business. He acknowledged he collected signatures when he ran for reelection in 2022, saying he viewed it as “unilateral disarmament” to not take all the different paths offered to candidates.

But, he said, “The party is not an arm of the state. It never should be, I think, for all sorts of reasons. The state should stay out of the business of prescribing a candidate selection mechanism that any particular political party chooses to embrace.”

Is there anything that should happen differently next year? Be able to reserve a location sooner, Axson said. In terms of bad behavior, he asked other Utahns to step forward and engage in the process, so they could “drown out bad behavior with committed, principled, kind behavior. And that’s true in families, neighborhoods, political parties, churches, schools and everything else.”

“And leading by example means showing that true conservative principles, in the case of the Republican Party, do not require angry, vitriolic, demeaning behavior. And so to those few that behave that way, there’s nothing I can do to force them not to, but that’s not an expression of principled conservatism. Principled conservatism doesn’t need that behavior to resonate and to be true.”

Former President Donald Trump’s official sneakers are pictured on an attendee at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Former President Donald Trump’s official sneakers are pictured on an attendee at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)



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