ST. GEORGE – While their numbers weren’t what they were during 2016 when the United States presidency was up for grabs, many Republicans faithfully attended their neighborhood caucus meetings Tuesday night.
Several precincts consisting of between 30 and 40 Republicans met at Dixie High School and went about the business of electing precinct new chairs and vice chairs, as well as delegates to send to the county and state Republican nominating conventions in April.
Greg Whitehead, who was elected to be a county and state delegate, said he’s been participating in the caucus meetings since he was old enough to vote.
“The feel I get from the caucus meetings is it feels like a republic,” he said. “We have a neighborhood that votes a voice for the neighborhood and it’s good to be able to know the neighbors can rely on you to study and learn (about) the candidates and vote appropriately.”
The precincts themselves are clusters of neighborhoods. Those neighbors then meet in caucus to elect the delegates to be their voice at the county and state level when nominating conventions are held. At those conventions they will vote on who they want to be the county and state Republican Party’s sanctioned candidate in the November election.
Between caucus night and the conventions, it is delegates responsibility to study and vet the candidates vying for the party’s nomination, as well as to listen what their neighbors have to say on the matter. Republican candidates who want the party’s nomination for county, state and federal-level positions court the delegates for their vote
“I’m not supporting anyone at this point,” newly elected delegate Doug Solstad said.
“I want to collect the information from the candidates and see what the information is made available and hear from my precinct and see what they have to say before I make a decision,” he said.
Solstad said he’s looking forward to helping his neighbors vet the candidates.
Mary Burkett, who attended her neighborhood caucus meeting and is running for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District against incumbent and fellow Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, said it’s her experience that the delegates can play hardball while vetting the candidates.
“The delegates take their job very seriously,” Burkett said. “They are the ones who will look you in the eye and ask you a question, and they ask you about hard stuff.”
Detractors of the caucus-convention system have said the delegates are out of touch with mainsteam and moderate Utah voters and tend to pick more far-right and extreme candidates. This was an argument made during the original run of the Count My Vote ballot initiative.
Read more: Trust voters or know candidates? Count My Vote rallies politicians, groups on both sides – from 2014
That initiative ultimately morphed into the SB 54 compromise law that allows candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot in order to bypass the delegate-vetting process. Before the law passed in 2014, the caucus-convention system was the only path to the ballot for candidates in any party, and it was called too exclusive and restrictive by opponents of the process.
As to the argument the delegates are out of touch and choosing extremist candidates, Burkett said that accusation was silly.
“That’s kind of silly when they were voted for by regular voters – regular people,” she said. “They aren’t anymore right or left than anyone else.”
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, who represents House District 75, said he is an avid supporter of the caucus-convention system himself, yet believes the process has a problem with transparency.
“We don’t know who our delegates vote for in a caucus system,” he said, saying that as a legislator, his votes are public and posted online. He said he believes the same should be done for county and state delegates when they vote at the conventions.
“I think the delegate votes should be public and transparent,” he said, adding transparency was one of the principles the Republican Party stands for.
Besides, Brooks said, if the votes were public, it may spur others within the precinct to step forward and run to be a delegate if they don’t like how the former delegate voted.
Brooks is running unopposed within the Republican Party for District 75, though will be facing off against two third-party candidates in the general election.
Other legislative races that impact Washington County, such as House Districts 62, 71, 73 and 74 and Senate District 28 are also unopposed with the Republican Party.
The only race running with multiple Republican candidates on the county level is for Washington County Commission Seat A. Republicans in that race are Gil Almquist, Slade Wilson and Allen J. Davis. The incumbent, Commissioner Zachary Renstrom, chose not to run for re-election.
On the federal level, Rep. Chris Stewart faces two Republican candidates for the 2nd Congressional District, while retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat has attracted 12 Republicans, including St. George attorney Larry Meyers and former 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
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