Wasn’t there some new party formed in Utah last year by Jim Bennett to get revenge for his father’s defeat in 2010? Didn’t they crash and burn when he only got nine percent of the vote in the Third Congressional District special election. Didn’t they quietly go back into the other parties after that defeat?
None of the above is true. But it seems to have become conventional wisdom. Let me lay out the facts, and also explain where the United Utah Party is as this new election season begins.
The United Utah Party first formed as a political action committee in April 2017. It started because of discussions involving several people - including Republicans, Democrats, and independents - over several months in 2016 and early 2017. Jim Bennett was invited to join the group after several months of discussions had already occurred. He was one of many players in the process, but he did not start the party.
As the group was beginning the process of collecting signatures to be officially certified, Jason Chaffetz announced that he would be resigning soon. Knowing that there would be a special election, we debated whether to accelerate the process and participate in the election. Jim offered himself as a candidate. After some discussion, the group accepted his offer and stretched to get our signatures in on time. There was no discussion of revenge.
We did not expect to win the Congressional election, particularly after John Curtis was nominated. Many people dismissed our effort to compete after Curtis’ primary victory. However, I am guessing that had either Tanner Ainge or Chris Herrod won that primary, we would have been a lot less unpopular.
Jim performed admirably given the obstacles he faced. He was not allowed on the ballot until August, and even then only because a federal judge intervened. He had difficulty raising funds because donors closed their pocketbooks to a new party, particularly with Curtis in the race.
Despite that, he won more than any non-major party Congressional candidate in Utah history. He exceeded expectations. One political pundit said he would be surprised if Jim got more than five percent of the vote. Some pundits dismissed us as just another minor party that would do no better than the Libertarians or the Constitution Party candidate. (Jim did better than all the other third party candidates combined.)
No, we did not slink away with our tails between our legs. That election gave us what we wanted – publicity to inform Utah voters that they had another alternative besides the liberal Democrats and the right-wing Republicans. In 2018, we will be offering that alternative on a larger level than we did last year.
Already, we have two Congressional candidates, both of whom have the resources to compete effectively against a weak Republican (Chris Stewart) and a tired one (Rob Bishop). We have a slate of state legislative and county candidates who will be challenging incumbents or vying for open seats. We will have caucuses at locations in eight counties, including Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, and Weber. We are building county party organizations across the state. All in all, we don’t think that record is bad for an infant party.
Will we take over Utah government in 2018? No. But it would be the rare new political party that goes from non-existence to majority status in one election cycle. The Republicans, for example, competed in four election cycles before they gained control of the federal government. A closer model may be the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which formed in 1918. The party did elect one member of Congress that year. However, it did not elect a governor until 1930.
Can we be effective if we only elect a small number of legislators? Yes. First, a new party has to start somewhere. But these legislators actually can make a difference. They can build bridges between the Republicans and the Democrats. Moreover, they can sponsor legislation that neither major party will: reforms such as term limits and more non-partisan offices. Also, they can act without worrying about losing the support of an extremist party base.
Will the Republican majority try to shut them out because they would rather compete with Democrats they can defeat than United Utah Party officials who they may not be able to? Likely. Of course, if the GOP legislators attempt to do that, it will only create more fodder for our efforts for the 2020 elections.
Will we be successful if we don’t win any elections in 2018? No one really expects us to win anyway. But I predict that we will do better than the pundits expect. After all, that is what we did in 2017.
Richard Davis is the chair of the newly formed centrist party, United Utah Party.