Utah’s centrist third party eyes its prospects
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s new moderate political party is gearing up for its first full election and hoping to seize on the anxiety many state Republicans feel about President Donald Trump to overcome tough odds in the overwhelmingly GOP state.
The United Utah Party nominated 19 candidates for races to the U.S. House and state Legislature at a suburban Salt Lake City middle school on Saturday.
The races will be the first full elections for the upstart centrist party and provide a test case for whether deep-red but idiosyncratic Utah is willing to entertain options outside the two main political parties. The party formed last year when founder Jim Bennett ran and finished a distant third in the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Bennett’s party has candidates for three U.S. House seats and more than a dozen in the state Legislature. He thinks the party has a shot in Republican-leaning districts where Democrats are either not fielding candidates or not investing resources.
“The goal is to win elections,” said Bennett, the son of late Sen. Bob Bennett. Bennett left the Republican Party following Trump’s nomination and now criticizes “extremism” in both major parties.
Statewide, nearly half of registered voters are Republicans, according to the Utah elections office. Republicans control all of Utah’s seats in Congress, the governor’s mansion and a supermajority in the state Legislature. There are no registered independents or third-party lawmakers in the state Legislature.
“We have a one-party state in the state of Utah,” he said Monday. “We’re well on our way to becoming the second party, not the third party.”
The party is not fielding a candidate for what is likely to be the state’s only competitive congressional race, between incumbent Mia Love and Democrat Ben McAdams.
Historically, third parties do not have a long tradition of success in Utah, said Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“But Utahns are willing to consider a third-party candidate when the other options are unacceptable,” Perry said. “You only have to look to our last presidential election to see that.”
In the 2016 presidential election, former CIA officer Evan McMullin earned 21 percent of Utah votes to finish only 7 percentage points behind Democrat Hillary Clinton as he touted himself as an independent conservative and seized on the state’s lukewarm embrace of Trump. The president’s fiery rhetoric remains unpopular with many Utah Republicans, a state where Trump earned 46 percent of the vote.
McMullin did especially well in the northern part of the state, an area largely covered by the congressional district where businessman and United Utah Party nominee Eric Eliason is hoping to unseat eight-term Rep. Rob Bishop.
In 2016, McMullin voters knew he was “not actually going to get elected,” Eliason said. “They just weren’t satisfied with the choices that they had.”
“If we can win the 30 (percent) and then pick up some additional on the side, then that might give us a pretty good chance,” Eliason said.
Eliason’s campaign reported raising $106,000 in April, well short of Bishop’s $684,000 but far above the two Democrats in the race, neither of whom has raised more than $13,000 so far. Democrats Kurt Weiland and Lee Castillo were forced into a June 26 primary election during their party’s convention Saturday.
United Utah candidate Jan Garbett is a former Republican who ran as the Democratic nominee for Utah lieutenant governor in 2016 but felt politically “homeless,” she said Monday.
In November, she’s running for Congress against Rep. Chris Stewart under the United Utah Party’s banner. Garbett has raised nearly twice as much money as Democrat Shireen Ghorbani but a fraction of Stewart’s.
“I feel like I am up against a machine,” Garbett said. “And that’s why I hope to appeal to individuals.”