More Utahns register as Republicans to vote in GOP primary

COVID-19 forces campaigns to pivot
Voter changes graphic
Posted at 3:33 PM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 22:52:26-04

SALT LAKE CITY — An increasing number of Utahns have joined the Republican party to vote in the June 30 primary election.

Data provided to FOX 13 from the Utah State Elections Office showed that as of Friday morning, 778,623 people were active GOP voters. Over the past month, the party has recorded an increasing number of people registering as Republicans to vote. Simultaneously, Democrats have seen declines -- suggesting some may be crossing over -- but unaffiliated voters have marked the most declines.

Voter changes graphic
A graphic illustrating voter party changes

Friday was the deadline to switch party affiliations. The Utah GOP has a closed primary, meaning voters must be registered as Republicans in order to participate.

"In every election cycle, there’s always the cry for one party to switch to another to impact the election," said Derek Brown, the Utah GOP Chair. "It’s always full of sound and fury and in the end doesn’t come to much."

Their data showed only about 10,000 used to be Democrats. Brown said the party has been focusing on registering new voters as Republicans and courting old ones to come back. He said the party recorded 72,000 new Republicans. Of those, 40,000 are entirely new members of the party.

"I feel like that effort has been successful," he said.

Some of the candidates for governor have taken note of it. Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes has pointed it out, suggesting it is a referendum on his conservative style. Former U.S. Ambassador and former governor Jon Huntsman Jr.'s campaign has taken out digital ads showing people how to register as Republicans in an appeal to moderates. Lt. Governor Spencer Cox's campaign has "reminded" people of the deadline to request a GOP ballot.

The move has not been lost on Chris Peterson, the Democratic candidate for governor. He will face whomever ultimately emerges from the June 30 primary.

"I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of Utahns just don’t feel like their voices are being heard and they’re scrambling to find some way to get the government to listen," he told FOX 13 on Friday. "And respectfully, I ask them: give me a chance."

As they head into the last week of campaigning, candidates for all offices in Utah have had to change how they reach out to voters. COVID-19 has significantly impacted political campaigns.

On Friday, all of the gubernatorial candidates made a socially distant stop at the Utah Taxpayers Association's annual conference. Last year, it was a packed ballroom where the governor and others made personal appearances. This year? People sat on tables spread far apart, some sporting face masks. A larger number of attendees watched a live stream, noted the association's vice-president, Rusty Cannon.

"We understand how difficult it’s been campaigning in this environment," he said to some of the candidates as they used disinfecting wipes to clean a shared microphone.

Still, the candidates found time to sound off on tax policy before the influential association's membership. They were quizzed on support of a constitutional amendment to change the earmark for education, their feelings on sales tax exemptions for businesses and new revenue funding mechanisms.

"I think there will be a moment in Utah where we need to move toward no sales tax on unprepared food," said businessman Thomas Wright.

Asked about the Utah State Legislature's special session to deal with COVID-19 economic fallout, Hughes said it wasn't a "cut" but suggested it was re-alignment of funding as a result of economic losses.

"If we don’t have the economy running, there will be continued re-allocation or funding adjustments that need to be made if the economy’s not going," he said.

Huntsman promised to review tax code policies, if elected again to the post.

"I'm for as flat a tax as we can possibly get, a low burden on the taxpayer such that we can pay our financial obligations on the state level," he said over a Zoom call from his home, where he's been quarantined since testing positive for COVID-19.

Cox offered a strong endorsement for "truth in taxation," where elected officials must hold public meetings before any property tax hike.

"Truth in taxation scares the hell out of every elected official. And that’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing," he said.

Peterson said he opposed the proposed constitutional amendment to remove the earmark on the income tax for education, breaking with his Republican counterparts. He told the crowd he wanted "a better deal."

As they left the event, a few candidates slipped face masks on and traded elbow-bumps with attendees in lieu of handshakes.