RINO Rampage | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

March 23, 2022 News » Cover Story

RINO Rampage 

Utah voters say if you can't beat Republicans, join 'em.

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  • Derek Carlisle

Are there any Democrats in Utah anymore? The state's politics seem to get redder and redder every election cycle. And while that trend is due to the overwhelming embrace of conservatism within the state, this year's election cycle could also see a surge in Republican activity from an unlikely source—RINOs.

For those unfamiliar with RINOs, the acronym stands for "Republicans in name only"—a catch-all term for anyone deemed outside of party orthodoxy and one that certainly applies to recently affiliated Republicans who have signed up to agitate from within.

"We're all Democrats, but we know what we're doing," said David Garbett, executive director of the environmental advocacy group O2Utah. Garbett, who ran for Salt Lake City mayor in 2019, not only joined the Republican Party for the current election cycle—he also succeeded at being elected at caucus to represent his neighbors at the state GOP Convention in April.

"It's not a denial of your identity," Garbett said. "I'm shocked at how many [Utah Democrats] say they can't do that."

In Utah, it's nothing new to hear talk of large numbers of Democrats and unaffiliated voters joining the majority party to swing an election, a strategy referred to as "raiding" in political circles. But as national Republicans have drifted farther and farther to the right and with the unchallenged state party increasingly at odds with itself, proponents of party gamesmanship have become unabashed in recent years.

There's a lot of political maneuvering with opposing strategies this season. Like Garbett, many non-Republican voters are openly flocking to the party to participate in its closed primary elections. And other high-profile Democrats have endorsed a plan to stand down on nominating a candidate for U.S. Senate and instead throw the party's resources and support behind independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin, aiming to build a coalition that can topple incumbent, far-right Sen. Mike Lee.

click to enlarge Poli-sci professor James Curry says  party-switching  voters are unlikely to sway an election. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Poli-sci professor James Curry says party-switching voters are unlikely to sway an election.

Both approaches appear to have been bolstered by the Legislature's decennial redistricting, which diluted minority votes even more than they were before. In what's known as "cracking," legislators spread Democratic-leaning voters among several Republican-dominated districts to keep them from voting in a bloc. Salt Lake County, for instance, is now divided among all four congressional districts, with each county segment outgunned by highly Republican areas.

Whether they're "RINOs," "Raiders" or "Party-switchers," they see their voting power best used in a strategic move to moderate the state's majority party. But can it work when most liberal voters are clustered along the Wasatch Front and gerrymandered into largely Republican districts?

"It probably doesn't make much of a difference," says James Curry, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. "It's hard to tell how many people switch and vote and do so strategically."

A Democratic Reckoning
As of Feb. 28 this year, 857,067 active voters were registered in Utah as Republicans. Less than one-third of that number, 241,575 voters, were registered as Democrats while 494,325 voters were unaffiliated. Since 2020, the state GOP has added 174,883 voters to its rolls while Democrats only added 53,263. Over the same period, the numbers of unaffiliated voters declined by more than 15,000.

click to enlarge Former Democrat Joanne Slotnik switched parties. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Former Democrat Joanne Slotnik switched parties.

Midterms elections typically see lower voter participation and even in a good year, only 1 in 5 registered voters bother to show up and vote in congressional primaries.

"We've seen Republicans go up since 2020," Curry said. "One has to be skeptical [about turnout]. Very few people vote in primaries anyway. ...It's difficult to get people who already are affiliated to come out, and it's even harder to get people to switch parties and then show up."

Joanne Slotnik said she saw the futility of voting Democrat in Utah and switched parties. Slotnik, the former executive director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, is registered to vote in a rural area of Utah.

"I've lived in Utah for 50 years, and the reality is it's extremely difficult for Democrats to win here—and it seems to me it's getting more difficult as time goes on," she said. "I want a voice. I want my vote to count."

She said that doesn't happen when she votes only in a general election. At that point, most races are reduced to the Republican who will win versus the Democrat who won't.

"It's a pragmatic decision. It allows me to have a voice and to also moderate and provide some balance in a party that is becoming more and more extreme," she said. "If I can balance that a little bit, that's a good thing."

A group called the Independent Voter Coalition is actively lobbying for people to switch parties to "Unseat Mike Lee." Their purple yard signs proclaim that "You Have Power" to keep Lee off the November ballot by voting in the June GOP primary.

click to enlarge The Independent Voter Coalition encourages Utahns to register as Republicans to oppose Sen. Mike Lee. - KATHARINE BIELE
  • Katharine Biele
  • The Independent Voter Coalition encourages Utahns to register as Republicans to oppose Sen. Mike Lee.

For some in the Democratic Party hierarchy, the way, to beat Lee is for the minority party to stay out of the race entirely. That group includes former Congressman Ben McAdams, who surprised many Democrats by backing the independent McMullin. And most recently, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson joined the McMullin camp.

Wilson said her primary concern is that former President Donald Trump will return to power. If that happens, she said, McMullin would be better in the Senate than Lee. "It's a big move for me and other Democrats," Wilson said. "We have not gone this way."

Kael Weston, who previously ran for Congress, is among the Democratic candidates seeking the party's nomination for U.S. Senate. He acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle, but said he won't step aside.

"To me, it's fundamentally about trusting voters and trusting your neighbors," Weston said. "It's about voters' choices and not about the internal drama in a party or a small group of people in a party. This is a needed and important Utah Democratic Party reckoning."

McMullin's website presents a palatable conservative for Democrats and independent voters. But Weston pointed out that McMullin has supported defunding Planned Parenthood, something not included in campaign materials now. Ultimately, the Democrats will have to decide whether they are "D"or "none" at their April 23 convention.

"This plot is saying, let's change the ballot. It's demoralizing voters," Weston said. "I would say they will have a hard time moving beyond the plot to the people."

The party-switchers, Weston said, are feeling bruised and giving into self-apathy after the gerrymander. But it's not just the average, disaffected voter who is making the jump. Former Salt Lake City mayors Palmer DePaulis and Ralph Becker switched. And there are many more.

Becker said he tends to switch back and forth—including registering Republican during the 2020 election cycle to support Jon Huntsman's run for governor. "A Democrat is not going to win statewide office," he said. "And there are people on the Republican side I want to vote for."

As for Weston's own strategy, he has donated to Republican Senate candidate—and former state lawmaker—Becky Edwards' campaign, because he'd rather face her in what he hopes would be a more positive race. Weston is hoping he'll have a path to victory in a three-way race between himself, the Republican nominee and McMullin, citing the 1958 election when an incumbent senator, Arthur V. Watkins, was defeated by then-Salt Lake County Attorney Frank Moss. Former Gov. J. Bracken Lee ran that year as an independent.

But Slotnik isn't sold on that reasoning. "Kael Weston couldn't get more than 38 percent against (Rep. Chris) Stewart," she said. "My vote is not going to elect him."

She added: "I'm tired of voting and losing."

click to enlarge U.S. Senate candidate Kael Weston says the Utah Democratic Party is facing a “reckoning.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • U.S. Senate candidate Kael Weston says the Utah Democratic Party is facing a “reckoning.”

Caucus Night
Slotnik is not just a primary voter—she participates in caucus meetings, too. Once called mass meetings, party caucuses are often groups of just a few highly engaged partisans. That's where their power comes from.

In 2018, the caucus in Slotnik's rural town garnered about a dozen people. She was ready to stand for election as a state delegate, but her neighbors instead chose a representative from among its county delegates.

The luck-of-the-draw nature of neighborhood caucus meetings is where some new Republicans are finding success, as state delegates have the power to stop a candidate in their tracks. In 2010, incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett lost at convention, teeing up a primary between two political newcomers—Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater.

Voters objected to a popular incumbent being ousted without a public vote, which led to the Count My Vote initiative and the dual-track system that now allows candidates to qualify for the primary by collecting signatures.

Practically speaking, says Garbett, if you don't vote in the Republican primary, you're basically conceding the race. "You've taken out the only election that matters," he said.

The GOP started to marshal their ranks in 1999 when the party first talked about closing primaries. Then-GOP chairman Rob Bishop didn't like the idea but came around to it.

"If there's a purpose to a party, there's a purpose to a party," he said. Party-switching, he thinks, is "a slimy way of doing things. I do think politics should have some moral base."

Closing the primary was meant to keep Democrats from jumping in to vote for the weaker or less-conservative Republican. The reasoning was the same for circling the wagons around the caucus system in the face of Count My Vote.

While signature gathering was meant to broaden the candidate field, the results haven't changed much. Jon Huntsman narrowly lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2020 after bypassing the convention vote. His supporters actively got behind party-switching, but however many voters registered GOP to support Huntsman weren't enough to top the support of now-Gov. Spencer Cox, who finished first at the convention.

If raiding is meant to moderate the majority party, Curry said the more moderate candidates are already winning in the state. He cited former Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mitt Romney as examples.

But internal dissatisfaction with the party also increased during the Trump years. Kory Holdaway is one example. Holdaway said he left the GOP and joined the ranks of the unaffiliated "after the whole Trump bullshit. The way the Republican Party was so accepting of his antics, I just couldn't continue to support it."

Holdaway sees the Mike Lee race as the one drawing outsiders, many of them moderate and formerly unaffiliated. Lee is seen as a far-right candidate, but as Bishop notes, Republicans come in all stripes.

There are different kinds of conservatives, Bishop says. There's the fiscal conservative, who Bishop says just looks for the cheapest option. The libertarian conservative hates government, the traditional conservative just wants things to stay the same and the social conservative will spend money for anything they perceive as good moral value, he said. Finally, there's the constitutional conservative, who really wants change but change based on some constitutional principle.

Party switchers don't fit any of those molds, and instead work to move the GOP to the political center. It has become even more urgent for some since this most recent redistricting cycle appears designed to silence the minority vote.

"We don't have the majority, but we need to participate," Garbett said.

Garbett said there were fewer than 10 people at his Republican caucus meeting, and he estimated that half were "strategic participants." He attended with the intent of becoming a delegate and said he thought about how to use coded language that might win him a spot.

He said he wanted to be careful not to be pegged as a "crazy liberal." So, he spoke about education, about his kids and how schools are the largest expenditure in the state. Garbett believes the Republicans in his precinct had seen a small, vocal group of "crazies" drive the party's position on mask mandates and were ready to hear from someone more temperate.

"They don't make it easy for people to participate or to show up," Garbett said, "but if you are not a pro-Trumper or anti-vaxxer, they can relate to you."

Participation isn't easy, and it can come with blowback. "Ray" knows what that means. He fears that if his real name is used, he'll be targeted.

Ray became active in politics in Vietnam and was motivated by the war. "When I came to Utah, boy, I was just taken aback by the whole political climate here, which was the reverse of what I was experiencing in high school."

He said it didn't take very long to see that Utah was, and would continue to be, a one-party state. "If you want to be involved in selecting your government," he said, "you had to get involved with the Republican Party."

Ray has been active in several caucus meetings, and says he manages to navigate them without lying. "I have been elected by my neighbors as a delegate to county and state conventions because I'm for apple pie and motherhood and am in favor of good government and well-managed budgets," he said.

At one state convention, Ray said he took the opportunity to talk to candidates like Bishop, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow and former Congresswoman Mia Love—who, Ray said, tended to defer to her campaign staff for the answers to his questions.

"It can be very effective in making connections with elected officials and candidates if you take the time to get involved," he said. "You don't have to violate your ethics to do so."

It wasn't all roses, though. He's been threatened and followed after speaking at meetings, and was once called an eco-terrorist at a public hearing. He gets objectionable emails from relatives, too.

In 2021, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, set out to make party-switching more difficult. For this year's elections, anyone who wants to change parties must do so by March 31—months before the November vote. Teuscher said the bill was meant to deter Democrats from joining the GOP ranks and interfering with its nominations.

On the other hand, says one Republican insider who requested anonymity, legislators celebrate when one of their own changes parties. In 2012, they were pretty happy when Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, switched from Democrat to Republican after losing a re-election bid for the House seat where she'd served for six years. And former Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, changed parties to run as a GOP incumbent in 2002. He had been appointed by the county Democratic Party to an empty seat.

In both of those cases, it was the Republicans who cheered the swaps. The Democrats, not so much. "I hope (Eric) can sleep at night," then-Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Meg Holbrook told the Deseret News.

The fear about party-switching may be more perception than reality, but lawmakers will certainly continue to make it more and more difficult for voters to participate. It goes to the heart of whether a primary election is a party function or more of a public act. Utah lawmakers, who are mostly Republican, might consider the taxpayer, too, because it is the public that pays for both primary and general elections.

What are voters really concerned about? It's not party building, says Curry. If you want to build or change a party, you have to get involved at the organizational level—and that means attending caucuses and conventions. Some voters obviously do. Most do not.

Others just want things to be fair. Voting rights groups have now sued the Legislature over its district maps, claiming a violation of voters' constitutional rights. Redistricting takes place every 10 years, during which voters are redistributed equally—but that doesn't mean fairly. "If you're a Democrat, it's obviously frustrating," Curry said. "If you could plausibly get one more [congressional] seat, redistricting made that less viable."

Slotnik said she is just playing the Republican game. "The Republican nature of the state is [like] a belt. The gerrymander is the unnecessary suspenders," she said. "It doesn't make for a strong state when one party just acts as a bully."

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Katharine Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses column. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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