Boos for Romney? Here's what we learned about Utah's 2021 Republican Party

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, File

Boos for Romney? Here's what we learned about Utah's 2021 Republican Party

By Katie McKellar, Deseret News | Posted - May 4, 2021 at 7:23 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — It was a chorus of boos that put Utah on the national radar this weekend — boos that filled the Maverik Center in West Valley City when Sen. Mitt Romney took the stage in front of nearly 2,000 Republican delegates.

Some delegates, despite the boos, stood and applauded the Utah senator who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump. But the deafening boos persisted beyond that applause, and only quieted down after outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown took the microphone and told his fellow Republicans:

"This is the moment I was talking about. Please. Thank you. Show respect."

Brown gave the microphone back over to Romney, followed by applause and cheers, and to a lesser degree, still some boos.

The "moment," Brown referred to, was from his speech to delegates earlier that morning, urging Republicans to focus on unity and expanding the "big tent" of the Utah Republican Party so that it will remain strong for generations to come, despite an emerging sea of blue in the West that could someday threaten Republicans' stronghold in the state.

Even though the boos were loud — a moment that Deseret News National Executive Editor Hal Boyd called an "embarrassment" — when put to a vote, a censure of Romney failed. It failed narrowly, 798 to 711, but it failed nonetheless.

The poignant moments from Saturday's convention, whether it was the booing of Romney or his failed censure, illustrate how the ghost of former President Donald Trump's presidency continues to divide Republicans, and how Utah's GOP is trying to navigate that while also charting a new course for its future.

Beyond all the Romney drama, a lot more happened Saturday with big implications for the future of Utah's GOP.

Here's what we learned:

Delegates sent a message to establishment Utah Republican leaders that they can't be told how to vote. They defied an endorsement letter circulated to delegates in which GOP leaders including Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and others urged delegates to vote for chairman candidate Stewart Peay. Instead, they elected 31-year-old sheep rancher Carson Jorgensen in a second round of voting.

Along with Jorgensen, delegates elected an all-millennial team of leaders, including Jordan Hess, 33, as vice chairman, Olivia Horlacher, 29, as secretary, and Mike Bird, 33, as treasurer.

But their election was less about intentionally selecting millennials than it was about voting against the "establishment," political pundits said.

A new wind blowing

To University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank, Jorgensen's election read more like a rejection of Peay's "establishment" endorsements and seemed to be a show of delegates "sort of thumbing their noses at elected officials and saying, 'This is our choice and we're going to vote for who we want.'"

Peay, asked if that endorsement letter shot him in the foot, told the Deseret News on Monday it was hard to know.

"I don't know. Possibly. But it's hard for me to say," he said. "Like every football coach, I'd expected a win, but, you know, it's hard to say. Obviously we didn't do any polling. I expected to win. I had a lot of positive calls and interactions (with) delegates. I had a lot of support behind it, but sometimes at conventions crazy things happen. Certainly unexpected things happen."

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To Jorgensen, the defiance of Peay's endorsement was a manifestation of a complaint he said he'd heard all along his campaign — that many delegates "felt like they were being ignored by their elected officials."

"Many of them feel that special interests and lobbyists have more influence than they as voters do," Jorgensen told the Deseret News in an interview Monday. "When (Cox and other Utah leaders) came out and said, 'This is how you need to vote,' they were like, 'Please. Don't tell us what to do.'"

That feeling of being "ignored" and that elected leaders aren't "actually listening" is a feeling among Republicans not just in Utah, but across the nation, Jorgensen said — and it's existed since long before Trump came on the political scene.

"I truly believe there is a feeling across the country, and I do believe that is what led to the rise of Donald Trump," Jorgensen said. "People felt like they weren't being heard."

With the election of an all-millennial team, Jorgensen said delegates saw "the need to get the younger generations involved" in the party's future.

"I don't think you're going to find a better team that is better equipped to bring in the young voters and be able to reach out to young voters," Jorgensen said.

Look to 2022, not 2020

As for the boos directed at Romney, Jorgensen followed the lead of his predecessor by urging delegates to know "we have to have respect," while also acknowledging there appears to be a big "disconnect" between many of Utah's GOP delegates and "that particular elected individual." He said as party leaders, "we're going to do everything we can to build those relationships."

"Because we have to," he added. "People need to feel like their elected officials are actually listening. ... To bridge this divide and heal these divisions, communication is going to be imperative."

Peay, in stronger terms, condemned the booing.

Arches National Park is pictured on Saturday, April 17, 2021. The iconic image is known throughout the nation. Not known is what will become of Utah’s political landscape.
Arches National Park is pictured on Saturday, April 17, 2021. The iconic image is known throughout the nation. Not known is what will become of Utah’s political landscape. (Photo: Annie Barker, Deseret News, File)

"I thought the booing of Mr. Romney was terrible. I thought it was undeserved," Peay said. "I think it conflicts with the principles of the Republican Party, and I hope we can move past that type of behavior."

Peay said he's "always concerned" about the future of Utah's Republican Party, and he hopes the new party chairman is up to the task.

"There's a battlefield of ideas out there," he said. "We have to make sure as Republicans that we focus on those ideas and that we make sure we're always expanding our tent to bring in new voters. You know, those are tough tasks. And I hope that our new leadership is up for the challenge and I wish them the best in their efforts."

In an emailed statement issued Monday, Trump did not call for party unity. He reveled in the booing.

"So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention," Trump said. "They are among the earliest to have figured this guy out, a stone cold loser!"

On the national level, Republicans in other states are still grappling with how to come together and what the future of the party will look like. Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney on Monday made headlines for saying the party "can't embrace the notion the election is stolen."

"It's a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy," she said during a closed-door conference in Sea Island, Georgia, CNN reported. "We can't whitewash what happened on Jan. 6 or perpetuate Trump's big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on Jan. 6 is a line that cannot be crossed."

Peay, acknowledging Utah's GOP is still "working through its next steps," said he hopes the party "will look forward and focus on 2022 and 2024, and not on 2020. Because I don't think there's any benefit in looking back."

The convention system

To political pundits, Saturday's convention put on display — yet again — that the GOP convention system puts the more extreme conservatives front and center, even though that's not an accurate representation of all Utah Republicans.

"That was manifested here in this convention yet again," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, noting it's what gave rise to the Count My Vote initiative that evolved into SB54, a law that allows an alternative route to the ballot through signature gathering and has been repeatedly contested by Utah's GOP in court to no avail.

"The delegates tend to be more conservative than what you see with mainstream Republicans," Perry said. "That has been a reality for a while."

It's important to note that while Saturday's convention was a dramatic snapshot of Utah Republicans, it likely wasn't a completely accurate depiction of how most everyday party members in the state feel, Burbank said.

That's how the caucus convention system works, Burbank said. It attracts the most passionate and, in many cases, the most extreme views to the room.

"It tends to be the people who have the strongest views who are most willing to voice them who show up to these conventions, and as a result it looks like Republicans are perhaps more anti-Romney or anti-Cox ... than perhaps they really are."

Cox — Utah's newly elected governor who has seen climbing approval ratings since he took office in January — was also booed at certain points during the convention.

That shows, Perry said, that "even in a supermajority there are factions that exist."

It's hard to know for sure that the same delegates that booed Romney were the same that voted against the "establishment" and went for Jorgensen, but Perry said it's likely "there is a tie there for sure."

"I think the majority of them were voting for candidates that were not seen as being part of the mainstream," Perry said.

Ultimately, Saturday's convention showed yet again — even as Brown's and Cox's speeches focused on unity — that Utah's Republicans still have some big divides to heal as they navigate their future in the wake of Trump's presidency.

"We have midterm elections come up next year and we have new lines being drawn throughout the state," Perry said, referring to Utah's redistricting process coming up this year. "And the reality is to be ready for that, they will have to find a way to come together to try and be united in their approach and their candidates.

"What we saw over the weekend," Perry said, "is going to increase the number of people that are going to decide to run for office through the signature gathering route."

To strengthen the party's platform and ensure their candidates are united, Perry said the party has some work to do.

"They'll want to build some bridges."

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Katie McKellar

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