This weekend, Republican state delegates will vote to elect a new chair of the Utah Republican Party. It’s a messy, time-consuming process that most voters don’t pay attention to, and often know nothing about.
It’s a convention likely to be dominated by ideological battles over SB54, the 2014 bill that created alternative paths to primary election ballots, a fight that nearly bankrupted the party and which some members still can’t give up. It’s also sure to involve no small amount of grandstanding, often consisting of opinions much more extreme than those held by the average Utah Republican.
There’s no better example of this disconnect between party insiders and average voters than the immigration debate. Surveys have repeatedly shown that a majority of Utah Republicans support legal protection for "Dreamers" who came to the U.S. as children. By contrast, the Utah Republican Party has staked itself at the opposite end of the spectrum: Its official platform calls for ending citizenship for people born in the U.S. to noncitizen parents, as established by the 14th Amendment.
To give another example, this year the Utah Legislature passed a law increasing penalties for hate crimes, including crimes committed against someone because of his or her race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. Now, at the state convention, some delegates have proposed a resolution that calls for the Legislature to overturn the newly minted hate crimes law. By focusing on misplaced theoretical concerns, these delegates fail to recognize that immigrants in Utah are among those most likely to be targeted for hate crimes.
All this matters because the GOP is struggling to connect with younger generations of Utahns. Demographics in Utah are changing, and state party chair candidates recognize that: Three of the four have explicitly discussed outreach to new, young and nonwhite voters as part of their platform. Young Utah voters are significantly less likely to affiliate with the Republican Party (or any political party) than older generations. And Utah’s population is not only in the process of doubling, it is becoming less white as younger, more racially diverse Utahns replace an older, mostly white generation. A strong party chair would work to capitalize on that new growth. But they won’t be successful if they give in to far-right rhetoric on immigration.
On his campaign website, chair candidate Chadwick Fairbanks writes, “The truth is that Progressives need poor, 'unwashed' masses from socialist third world countries so they can 'weaponize' these people against the Republic (and Republicans) by turning them into huge, mentally-ill, chip on their shoulder blocks of racist Democrat voters.”
This is exactly the kind of attitude on immigration most Utahns find distasteful. And as Bob Bernick noted earlier this week, “If your platform excludes people, instead of including people, then your political party is headed toward a minority.”12 comments on this story
Utah Republicans hold moderate views on immigration. They understand what it means to celebrate Pioneer Day each year (and that the early Latter-day Saint settlers fleeing religious persecution were, in fact, undocumented immigrants themselves.) They support compassionate immigration policies on both a federal and local level, as outlined in the Utah Compact.
For whoever is elected as the new party chair, the challenge is not to make the GOP’s current views on immigration palatable to a new crop of voters. It is to critically examine the party platform and recalibrate those positions to inclusively and accurately reflect the views of the voters the party represents. If Republicans want to maintain their political lead in Utah, they need to stand up for immigrants in a meaningful way.