SALT LAKE CITY – They support police reform, LGBTQ rights and Medicaid expansion. But in deeply conservative Utah, thousands of liberal-leaning voters are registering as Republicans because they say it's the only way to have a political voice in a key election next week.
The state's June 30 primary will decide the Republican nominee for the first open governor’s race in more than a decade. In a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in more than 40 years, the GOP nominee is an almost-certain winner.
Utah's outnumbered Democrats say they’ve found things to like in the GOP candidates for governor as Republican President Donald Trump plays to a deeply conservative base on the national level. They’re backing moderate candidates and hoping that casting their vote could help their issues get traction.
With four candidates still duking it out, the primary could be close. Democratic voters like Marina Gomberg of Salt Lake City aren’t willing to sit out the contest.
A newspaper columnist who chronicles her parenting adventures with her wife, Gomberg wants to help protect recent gains for LGBTQ people in Utah, including a ban on so-called conversion therapy for minors.
“I’m willing to change my affiliation in order to make the change I want to see,” she said. “If you want to be participating in politics you have to be a part of the Republican party.”
The new Republican registrations by Democrats are a reflection of the dominance of the GOP in Utah politics and the policy areas where the state's leaders have given ground, illustrating how Utah's bastion of conservatives are not always fans of the president.
Some high-profile Utah Democrats have encouraged voters to register as Republicans to vote in the primary, which is closed to non-members. In just a few months, the pool of registered Republicans increased by nearly 72,000 while the numbers of registered Democrats has shrunk by 10,000. Unaffiliated voters are down by 45,000, according to state data.
“Voters are likely to feel that if they don’t weigh in now about this choice then it may be too late when we get to the general election,” said Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.
Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr.’s campaign has been actively encouraging people to ensure they are registered as Republicans, drawing on the wide popularity he enjoyed during a previous stint in the governor’s mansion.
Gomberg, the Salt Lake City voter, said she plans to vote for Huntsman, who was also endorsed by the LGBT-rights group Equality Utah. The group cited his support for civil unions years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
Huntsman performs well in polls among crossover voters against the other main front runner, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who tends to do better among self-identified Republicans but was once a rare GOP critic of the president.
Hard-right candidate Greg Hughes, a vocal Trump supporter, has railed against the party switching, saying Democrats are joining the party to blunt his recent rise in polling.
“We’re seeing some brazen behavior on all fronts in many ways,” he said at a recent debate.
Meanwhile, businessman Thomas Wright has attracted some voter interest with his police reform proposals as the police brutality protests sweeping the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death play an unanticipated role in the Utah race.
Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, a co-founder of the community group Unified Allies 4 Change, said he’s among many people of color voting Republican to hold the state’s next leader to account in dismantling systemic discrimination. He’s still deciding between Huntsman and Wright.
“There’s too many people oppressed in this country,” said Stewart-Johnson, who lives in the city of Provo. “There are too many reforms that need to be changed. We won’t allow anybody to wait any longer to make that change.”
For party officials, the Democrat influence on the Republican primary is frustrating.
“I think it shows a lack of integrity,” said Utah Republican Party Chair Derek Brown.
He doesn't expect the party switchers to have a huge impact on the primary and sees a bright side in that some of the unaffiliated voters signing up as Republicans may stick with his party.
“The water is warm and the tent is big enough for everyone,” he said.