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Analysis: Why did Utah Republicans suffer election losses in 2018?

Ronald Mortensen, Ph.D.

May 14, 2019



Based on the campaigns run for Republican Party leadership and State Central Committee positions at the County and State Republican conventions, it would appear that the disunity in the Utah Republican Party was solely responsible for the Republicans loss of the 4th Congressional District along with several legislative seats.


However, I would argue that the division in the Utah Republican Party was only one of several factors that led to Republican losses and, it was definitely not the strongest factor. 


The initiatives on the 2018 ballot brought out many additional voters which helped the Democrats in Salt Lake County.  Utah County’s flawed election system effectively suppressed the Republican vote there.   Either singly or combined, these were of much greater importance that was the disunity in the Party.  Finally, it has to be acknowledged that Mia Love was not the strongest possible candidate.


  1. The medical marijuana (cannabis), Medicaid expansion and independent redistricting commission initiatives helped push higher voter turnout.  In fact, 1,065,630 votes were cast for the medical marijuana initiative which is slightly more than the 1,062,897 that were cast for all U.S. Senate candidates combined.   Non-traditional voters and younger voters who normally do not vote in mid-term elections supported these initiatives and a good number of them apparently voted a straight Democrat party ticket.  Therefore, the initiatives and voter turnout that they generated were enough by themselves to account for the Republican’s losses in the 4th Congressional district and for the loss of seats in the state legislature. 

  2. Utah County’s poorly administered voting system suppressed the vote in that county—67.25% active* voter turnout compared to 79.4% active voter turnout in Salt Lake County.  In fact, Utah County had the lowest voter turnout in the state.  Since Republicans hold such a large edge in Utah County, that alone could be considered the key factor for the loss of the 4th Congressional district seat.

  3. Mia Love’s decision to distance herself from President Trump may have cost her the votes she needed to be re-elected since it almost certainly did not gain her any Democrat votes and may have cost her just enough Republican votes to ensure her defeat.  If that weren’t enough, her decision to collect campaign funds for a non-existent primary election allowed the Progressive, Alliance for a Better Utah, with its two Republican board members (Cheryl Allen and David Irvine), to accuse her of campaign funding violations.  That put her on the defensive and drove a negative narrative for much of the campaign.


Had the Republican Party been more unified, it may have been able to get enough additional Republicans to the polls to save the 4th Congressional district seat.  However, given the high voter turnout in Salt Lake County and the foul-ups in Utah County’s voting system that still may not have been enough to save that seat.  And, even a united Republican Party would almost certainly not have been able to save the Republican legislative seats that were lost in Salt Lake and Weber Counties.


So, the bottom line is that party disunity alone was not to blame for the loss of the 4th District seat and was not the primary reason for the loss of legislative seats.  If Republicans are really concerned about the state turning purple, they would do well to focus on fixing Utah County’s elections process, on finding a way to appeal to voters in an increasingly blue Salt Lake County, developing a strategy for addressing challenges that come with large numbers of people from blue states moving to Utah and on keeping Republican elected officials from supporting a third party candidate for President in 2020 as they did in 2016.  Finally, the Party better keep an eye on tax modernization efforts by the governor and the legislature because they have already alienated many Republican and unaffiliated voters by trying to ram HB441—sales tax on services—through the legislature using Washington D.C. style tactics.


 


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*In order to get voter turnout as high as possible, the state Elections Office uses the percentage of “active voters” voting –an active voter is a voter who has voted in the past several elections.  This, of course, is far higher than the percentage would be if it were based on the number of eligible voters (whether registered or not) or on everyone who is registered to vote.  According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the number of active voters is approximately 225,000 less than total registered voters.  And both of these number are far lower than the total number of eligible voters.  So, while statewide turnout of active voters was 75.55%, the turnout of eligible voters was only 52%. 

 



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