The upcoming election cycle is one of the reasons burning issues are gaining ground among Republicans
You could be forgiven if you thought the mainstream politics in Utah was leaning a little more towards the extremes these days.
After all, issues debated by policymakers include critical race theory, the ban on transgender athletes, and the transformation of Utah into a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” These topics typically boil over in hard-core Republican states like Texas or Idaho, not “moderate” Utah.
In Utah, dominated by the GOP, the biggest fear of most politicians is a main challenge from their political right. The easy political math says that supporting “red meat” issues now can avoid an election headache in 2022.
Last month, Utah lawmakers toured Governor Spencer Cox to approve two non-binding resolutions to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools across the state and to show their support for gun rights. These steps came after Cox refused to bring the issues for consideration at the recent special session.
Resolutions are non-binding, which means they do nothing. Critical Race Theory is not taught in any Utah classroom and is not considered by state education officials. And gun rights in the state are far from threatened. Lawmakers dramatically expanded the rights of gun owners earlier this year, allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in public without a license.
Instead, they seemed to send a message.
“It’s absolutely not governance,” says Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen, who lives in Park City. “You see this in states controlled exclusively by Republicans. They are essentially leading a culture war, and the bet they are making is that it will have a positive electoral result for them next November.
But the question remains: Why are these questions burning so hot among Republicans in Utah right now? There may be a few factors involved.
“I think it’s a bit of a reaction to the Democratic administration in the White House,” said Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan. “It may be of more concern, so voters want us to stand up and push back on the federal government.”
The other, Galen notes, is a backlash to Utah’s rapidly changing face.
“I live in Park City. The influx of people that we get from other states like California, Texas, Connecticut and others is amazing. The last thing these guys want is someone to come into their playground and turn things upside down. “
It’s not just Utah. The focus on cultural issues has taken on greater significance in several GOP strongholds this year. The Idaho Republican passed the Critical Race Theory ban this year, and Arkansas approved bills banning nearly all abortions in the state and restricting the rights of transgender people.
These questions tend to energize the more militant and engaged elements of the Republican Party. It is not by accident.
“It’s more of an ecosystem than a political party,” said Galen, explaining that the Republican base and the right-wing media essentially feed off each other.
“Sometimes Fox News says something about critical race theory or whatever, and it lights up grassroots and social media. But, there are other times when a fringe topic starts to grab attention on Facebook, and Fox hosts see it so they end up talking about it, ”he said.
In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers debated several bills that won over GOP voters. One targeted the moderation practices of social media companies, a cause notorious for Republicans after former President Donald Trump was kicked off most social media platforms for inciting the Jan.6 attack on the US Capitol.
Governor Spencer Cox vetoed the bill. Lawmakers plan to raise the issue again next year.
A controversial piece of legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in female sports has died after the owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz got involved behind the scenes. Rep. Kera Birkeland, the sponsor, plans to revive the bill in the 2022 session. There will be a public hearing on her proposal next week.
Utah lawmakers have also banned the government’s use of so-called vaccine passports and slapped cellphone makers by demanding that new devices sold in Utah block adult content by default. They also banned mask warrants in schools.
And it’s not just the legislature. Last week, the Davis County Sheriff’s Office announced it would no longer enforce new laws or orders that violate Second Amendment rights.
Why the urgency?
“The ability of some of these groups to make their voices heard is greater than ever before,” Teuscher said. “This is unheard of.”
Take, for example, the critical debate on racial theory. Utah Parents United, the group that led the crusade against masks in Utah schools, has spearheaded the opposition.
“People can get in touch with you a lot faster, and it may have something to do with the lawmaker wanting to respond to that,” he said.
But, at least for a longtime politician, Utah is slow to catch up with the changes that are driving the Republican Party nationwide.
“Utah is behind on these things. I am amazed at how slowly we have been compared to other states, ”said former Rep. Chris Cannon, who served six terms in Congress starting in 1997.
For example, it took lawmakers seven years to pass a bill removing permits for weapons concealed in public because they did not have enough backing to overcome former Governor Gary Herbert’s veto.
It’s a safe bet that Republicans in Utah will suffer little to no political consequences from the emphasis on critical race theory, limiting transgender rights, or bills that push back the federal government. They recently changed or removed three voter-approved initiatives and only lost one seat in the Utah legislature in the 2020 election. In fact, the biggest danger for many lawmakers is doing something. which will precipitate a challenge to their political rights.