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SALT LAKE CITY — New efforts are underway to get more unaffiliated and even Democratic voters to participate in next month’s closed Republican Party primary that include a surprising switch by a former Democratic Party leader.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., one of four Republicans running for governor in the June 30 election, is running ads on social media featuring his daughter, Abby, urging supporters to “make your vote count in June” by ensuring they are registered with the GOP since the party only allows members to participate a primary.
And a former Utah Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis, said he’s already switched his party affiliation so he can vote for a still-unchosen GOP gubernatorial candidate in what he called a “rigged election” because of Republican Party rules. Democrats have long allowed any voter to participate in their party primaries.
“I registered as a Republican,” Dabakis said, discounting the chances of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Chris Peterson, in November since Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since the 1980s. “Look, there’s something that Republicans forget. The governor is the governor of all the people, not just the Republicans.”
He said he’s “a Utahn before I’m a member of a party” and encouraged others to follow his lead.
“I believe everybody in the state ought to get into this fixed, rigged election,” Dabakis said, calling it his duty “to make sure that the best person gets elected governor of the state of Utah, not just be passive and sit there and see who this small, small slice of the state decide should be the leader.”
Huntsman and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox have led in polls over the other Republicans on the ballot, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, but Huntsman is seen as the strongest candidate among voters who don’t identify with either party.
The Huntsman campaign is running the ads because the campaign “found during the signature process a lot of people who thought they were Republicans were surprised to find out they weren’t officially affiliated,” spokesman Marty Carpenter, said.
“We want everyone who plans to vote for a Republican governor in November to have the chance to do so in June, when it really matters,” he said. Huntsman, Cox and Wright gathered voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot while GOP delegates advanced Cox and Hughes to the ballot at last month’s virtual state convention.
Cox’s campaign spokeswoman, Heather Barney, said the lieutenant governor “believes the Republican Party should be inclusive and welcoming to all. He hopes other campaigns also encourage voters to become lifelong converts to the Republican Party and not just on Election Day.”
Wright said in a statement he finds “it disappointing that a Republican candidate would encourage people who don’t share our loyalties to register with our party. Our party is bigger than what’s in any candidate’s short-term self-interest.”
Hughes was more pointed in his criticism of Huntsman in a statement.
“We support encouraging people to join the Republican ranks because we are the party of small government, low taxes, local control and defenders of our Constitution and the liberties it protects. However, this effort seems to be attempting to help candidates that registered Republicans would not elect on their own,” Hughes said.
The former speaker took even sharper aim at Dabakis, saying, “These tactics to manipulate elections from people that do not see themselves as Republicans are akin to voter fraud. They used to be done under the radar because they are deceitful and clearly wrong.”
Hughes said what he termed “outrageous behavior from liberals and Democrats is being inflicted upon us without apology or shame” and called for Republicans to “push back and fight for our party. It’s time to engage or we will become a purple state or a blue state like Colorado.”
Both Republican and Democratic party leaders raised concerns about voters changing their party status to vote in the GOP primary — especially Dabakis.
“At the end of the day if you’re a true-blue Democrat, you ought to be helping the Democrats out rather than meddling in the Republicans’ internal affairs,“ Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said, warning that such an effort “rarely works and furthermore undermines the candidates that we believe in.”
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he’s “not too concerned,” because every election there’s talk of outsiders interfering with the party’s closed primary.
“From a principle standpoint, if a politician were to change political parties just for political expediency, the voters would skewer him for doing that,” Brown said. “I think for anyone to suggest that the voters should do that very same thing themselves, switch parties for political expediency, I think it shows the same lack of integrity.”
The controversy comes as state Republican and Democratic parties are already dealing with changes to everything from voter outreach to fundraising as a result of the the social distancing required to stop the spread of COVID-19 as they attempt to engage voters.
Party conventions had to be replaced with candidate speeches posted online and electronic ranked-choice balloting. Brown said the GOP ended up saving money. He even managed to replace the $1,000 usually raised from delegates on the convention floor by taking piano requests on Facebook while waiting for ballot results.
“It’s forced us to be more efficient,” Brown said, noting a meeting of some 80 national party delegates and alternates was just held online, just as most other activities are these days, including access to an upcoming gubernatorial debate.
He said so far, the party has been successful in collecting donations without holding in-person fundraisers and isn’t planning to kick off get out the vote efforts until later in the year, so the virus’ impact is “not too traumatic at this point, but if things continue as they are into the fall, we’ll see a much more dramatic change.”
For Democrats, who have already selected their nominees in most key races including governor, social distancing has meant time that would have been spent canvassing voters door to door to build support for the party is instead being used for internal training sessions earlier than usual to gear up for November.
“There’s a lot more work happening early on with the candidates, getting ready for a bigger press in the summer and hopefully moving on into the fall,” Merchant said. “I would say it’s kind of a weird combination of things being very quiet but there is a lot of preparation going on for some of these races.”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it’s clear COVID-19 has created new obstacles to traditional party-building. Democrats have the bigger challenge, Karpowitz said, making their candidates competitive enough in a GOP-dominated state to attract voter attention.
Republicans, he said, must figure out how “to maintain their advantages in the face of both a public health emergency and an economic downturn that are likely to affect the incumbent president” at the top of the ticket, Donald Trump, who has not been as popular with Utahns as past GOP leaders.
As far as the controversy over voters changing their party affiliation, Karpowitz suggested that neither Huntsman nor Dabakis may have enough influence to matter in the end.
“The biggest challenge will simply be to get voters to pay attention,” he said. “There is no doubt that Huntsman would benefit from increased participation in the Republican primary from unaffiliated voters and even some Democrats. But the number of voters likely to do it is small.”
That’s in part because for voters, changing their party affiliation “requires extra effort, and in part because people are distracted by other things,” the political science professor said.
Dabakis’ switch “may alert people to the fact that they could make a difference in the Republican primary, but I don’t expect large numbers of Democrats to follow his lead. For many voters, partisanship is connected to identity,” Karpowitz said, making “it harder to engage in the sort of strategic voting” being advocated.