Can Utah’s centrists provide refuge for the disillusioned?

A new party called United Utah says that it is ‘Practical Not Partisan.’

 

Jim Bennett, a congressional candidate in the upcoming special election in Utah’s 3rd District, always considered himself a loyal Republican. But that began to change in 2010 when his father, three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, lost the party’s nomination, blocked by Tea Party Republicans who didn’t find him conservative enough. Jim Bennett, who ran his father’s final campaign, grew increasingly frustrated with his party’s direction. “Right when Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination,” he says now, “I decided I didn’t want to be a Republican anymore.”

Meanwhile, a Utah professor was also feeling politically disillusioned — but with the Democratic Party, which he felt had moved too far to the left, and which has long lacked power in this mostly red state. Richard Davis, who teaches political science at Brigham Young University, contacted Bennett last year about the prospect of creating a centrist party. “For those who are moderates in either party, or just Independents, there was no political home,” says Davis. Thus began the United Utah Party, with Davis as party chair and Bennett as executive director.

Jim Bennett, center, has helped organize a new, moderate party for disillusioned Republicans and Democrats called the Utah United Party. He is also the party’s candidate for the special election to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Steve Griffin /The Salt Lake Tribune

Calling itself “Practical Not Partisan,” United Utah is courting voters who, like Bennett and Davis, have grown disillusioned with the two major parties. The nascent party originally hoped to begin fielding candidates in state and local races in 2018, but its first foray came sooner and at a higher level than expected: It was still collecting signatures to become a qualified party when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced plans to step down. The United Utah team lurched into high gear, eager to use the Nov. 7 special election to introduce itself to the state — and particularly to Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. Bennett, who thought he’d left politics behind after the tumult of his father’s failed re-election bid, knew the party needed a candidate who was “willing to stick their neck out.” He volunteered to run.

 

Some of the planks in United Utah’s platform tilt to the right: pro-Second Amendment, anti-abortion with certain exceptions. But others lean left: support for increased funding for public education, a more liberal stance on immigration. According to Bennett, this mix reflects the values of many Utah voters, the majority of whom belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “In terms of what people actually believe, Utah is quite moderate,” he says. “We’re not in lockstep with the party on issues like immigration or public lands or health care.” Mormons typically don’t vote Democratic, though, because candidates “take too many positions that are too liberal for the districts in which they are running,” says Jeremy Pope, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

The 2016 presidential election clearly showed that Utah voters wanted another option: Trump’s apparent morality did not align with LDS beliefs. A damning speech by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a Mormon whom many Utahns revere, solidified their opposition: “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said before the primary. Trump earned 46 percent of the vote in the state, with 21 percent going to Evan McMullin, a center-right independent candidate. And McMullin did particularly well in Utah’s 3rd District, which includes Provo, Orem and Price as well as Moab and Monticello.

“Usually, the party that is considered the dominant party in national politics stirs up more third-party offshoots,” notes James Curry, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah. The emergence of United Utah is therefore no surprise; a Republican stronghold where Trump performed poorly is a logical place for a centrist movement. “For someone who wants to make noise,” says Curry, “it’s a signal that this is a good state to do it.”

But history has not favored third parties. They tend to be short-lived, and they rarely win major elections. Most voters are staunchly partisan — more so than they think — and those attachments prove hard to break, says Curry. Even when voters express doubt about candidates early on, most revert to familiar party lines on Election Day. The moderate, well-liked Republican candidate, Provo Mayor John Curtis, is favored to win the special election. If a farther-right candidate had won the primary, it might’ve created more space for Bennett. As it stands, Pope suspects Bennett will take more votes from the Democratic nominee, Kathie Allen.

United Utah is both a symptom and a result of nationwide dissatisfaction with both parties, so what percentage of the vote Bennett receives will be instructive. The party’s emergence, according to Curry, indicates that we’ll soon see some shifts in the Republican coalition as the GOP grapples with its growing fissures. “It’s a sign,” says Curry, “that you’re going to see some strife and upheaval in the Republican Party in the next four to eight years.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News