Outgoing GOP chairman eyes high-profile political future

Published: Wednesday, April 17 2013 6:05 p.m. MDT

Thomas Wright (, Courtesy of Thomas Wright) Thomas Wright (, Courtesy of Thomas Wright)

SALT LAKE CITY — Outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright isn't ruling out a run to represent Utahns in Washington, D.C., or even lead the state, but he said he's in no hurry to make a decision.

"I've considered the various positions. I've been party chairman, I've seen what they have to offer," he said. "I think at this point, if I were to run for elected office, it would be a consideration between the U.S. Senate, the United States Congress or running for governor."

Wright, whose replacement as party chairman will be named next month by delegates to the annual state GOP convention, said he has no timeline for what would be his second bid for elected public office.

"I'm 39 years old and I don't consider myself to be over the hill in a political sense," said Wright, who ran unsuccessfully for a Salt Lake seat in the Legislature as a moderate Republican in 2006. "Time is on my side."

Quin Monson, head of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Wright can take his time deciding what to do next when it comes to politics.

"My take is that if he wants it, he has a bright future in politics," Monson said. "He's young. He's got a lot of friends and the capacity for fundraising with those connections."

And Wright is also popular with GOP delegates, according to a June 2012 survey by the center. Nearly 99 percent of the Republican delegates responding to the survey said they approved of the job Wright was doing as party chairman.

"He's extremely popular," Monson said.

Wright's options include challenging Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, whose freshman term is up in 2016; running for the seat currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, elected last year to what he said would be his final six-year-term; or taking on the state's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert last November won his first full four-year term last year, after taking over the office in 2009 from then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Wright has made his mark in party politics through efforts aimed at encouraging more Republicans to get involved.

"I hope he runs for office," said Jowers, who has also been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate. "At his core, he is a conservative who believes in participation and involvement, and that alone makes him an interesting candidate."

It remains to be seen whether delegates to the May 18 GOP convention at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy take up one of Wright's most controversial initiatives as chairman, changes to the caucus and convention system for selecting candidates.

Jowers and other members of a group are readying an initiative petition drive to offer an alternative to that system. That group includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who also writes a column for the Deseret News.

The group has said it will drop the initiative effort if the threshold to win a party's nomination at a convention to avoid a primary election is raised from 60 percent to 70 percent and access is expanded to caucus meetings, where party delegates are selected.

Wright is trying to push the increase in the threshold and the expanded access to caucus meetings.

But the members of the GOP's central committee fell short recently of the two-thirds support needed to make a change in the threshold, although they did agree to a resolution making it easy for Republicans to participate in caucus night.

The governor, a supporter of the caucus and convention system, called on delegates to the state convention to approve the higher threshold. Herbert said he voted for the change at the central committee meeting.

"If you want to ensure to keep the delegate caucus convention system, raise the bar to 70 percent," the governor said, crediting Wright with trying to increase involvement in the current system. "Otherwise, we've got a fight on our hands."

Wright, who heads a multistate luxury real estate firm, said he has always viewed himself as "a bridge builder. I'm a consensus builder. I like to bring people together. Usually, people have more in common than they are different."

He said the problem with politics is that too many people focus only on their differences and are unable to reach out to those on another side of an issue.

"Nothing is getting done," Wright said. He said he was proud of the party's efforts to resolve the concerns raised by the group proposing the initiative, whatever happens at the state convention.

"Win, lose or draw, so to speak at the convention, it's a victory," Wright said.

Three Republicans have filed with the party to take Wright's spot as chairman at the convention, former Salt Lake County GOP Chairman James Evans, Utah Republican Hispanic Chairman Marco Diaz, and Wasatch County GOP Chairman Aaron Gabrielson.

Wright, who said he doesn't plan on making an endorsement in the GOP chairmanship race, did not anticipate anyone else filing for the party's top spot before Thursday's deadline.

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