SALT LAKE CITY — For Utahns who aren't already involved in party politics, it's easy to miss the heated races underway for the leadership of both the state Republican and Democratic parties.
It's party delegates, not voters, who'll determine the direction of Utah's two major political parties heading into a presidential election year by choosing among candidates for chairman and other top leadership spots.
Those decisions will be made at the upcoming annual state party conventions, on May 4 at Utah Valley University for Republicans, and on June 22 at Park City High School for Democrats.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson is not seeking a second term after two years of bitter intraparty fighting over a controversial law known as SB54 that allows candidates a signature-gathering alternative to the traditional nomination process.
Democrats have their own issues, with Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas running for a second term but no longer being paid as of last Tuesday while another candidate dropped out of the race.
The internal splits in both parties is affecting everything from fundraising to candidate recruiting just as Utah voters are beginning to start focusing on the 2020 elections driven by an already contentious presidential race.
It remains to be seen whether the results of the party chairman elections will resolve the problems plaguing both Republicans and Democrats in Utah or just reinforce the differences among activists on the right and left.
In the Utah GOP, even after a vocal faction lost a bid earlier this year to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their challenge to SB54, they censured Anderson for not agreeing with a directive to bar some Republicans from taking that alternative.
Now, Phill Wright, a leader of the effort against the law as a member of the powerful State Central Committee, is running to replace Anderson after losing the chairman's race to him two years ago.
So is former state lawmaker Derek Brown, who has served as Sen. Mike Lee's deputy chief of staff and is now an attorney for technology companies on issues involving the government.
Wright, vice president of government affairs for Entrata, a Lehi technology company, is campaigning on his experience in party leadership, including as head of the state's delegation to the 2016 Republican National Convention.
The Utah GOP has relied on Entrata CEO Dave Bateman to cover the costs of the SB54 lawsuit, but Wright said if he is elected chairman, he would turn to the party's grassroots for support.
"I have nothing to apologize for," Wright said of the SB54 fight that helped drive the party into debt, describing it as being about "defending the constitutional rights of our party, defending our delegates" and the Utahns who choose them.
Brown is seen as the favorite of party insiders and said he's heard from hundreds of people who "question why in the world a sane person would do it and then they follow up by asking what they can do to help."
He said this is the time for the Utah Republican Party to come together and focus on strengthening the traditional caucus and convention system for nominating candidates and leave any changes up to the Legislature.
"I acknowledge that SB54 is obviously the current law, but I think as a party it's important in light of where that is now to look forward not backward. I believe that's what the party needs to do," Brown said.
He said among Republicans, "there's been a lot of talk through the years about uniting, but we're at a critical crossroads in the party right now that requires a chairman who can bring the differing factions together."
Wright said he believes the Utah GOP is already strong.
"Every deliberative body has disagreement and discussion. That's healthy," he said. "It does not mean that the party is fractured. I reject the idea that the party's fractured. I think our party is very united."
Brown said delegates are telling him that with the SB54 lawsuit over, it's time to pull the party together and win elections.
"I think the days of us winning based on our sheer numbers are about to come to an end," Brown said, as they have in other Western states once dominated by the GOP. "That's fundamentally what I want Republicans to think about."
Besides Wright and Brown, who briefly considered a run for party chairman in 2017, the other candidates for Utah Republican Party chairman are Chadwick H. Fairbanks III and Sylvia Miera-Fisk.
There are six candidates for the Utah Democratic Party chairmanship, including Thomas, after Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Q. Dang left the race Thursday.
"I just think the timing is wrong for me," Dang said. He cited the need for "a new set of fresh eyes" to deal with the state party's debt and its leaders no longer being paid.
Thomas declined to discuss her salary being cut off but said she believes "the Utah Democratic Party stands firm that people should be fairly compensated for their labor."
She said she's running again "mostly because we are in the middle of planning for 2020. There's just so much work that needs to happen this year" to help Democrats win in the next general election.
The Legislature's decision to fund a presidential primary election on Super Tuesday means "rainbows and unicorns" for Democrats, Thomas has said, because it'll boost enthusiasm in a party that holds only limited elected offices in the state.
Wayne Holland, a three-term Utah Democratic Party chairman from 2005 to 2011, said he decided to get in the race because "it's been hard to watch what's happening in the party."
Now the western political director for the United Steel Workers union, Holland said he's ready to bring back the "blue collar folk" who've strayed from the party to vote for President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
Holland describes himself as a "pragmatic progressive" and was a superdelegate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race. Sanders, a Democratic socialist, was the big winner in Utah's presidential caucus vote that year.
Thomas, a top Sanders organizer in Utah, said she doesn't believe the party is as divided as it once was, between progressive and more centrist Democrats. What's needed, she said, is to raise the public's comfort level with the party.6 comments on this story
Especially in rural parts of Utah, "people don't want to claim to be Democrats. They don't feel they can affiliate with the Democratic Party for any reason," Thomas said. "That's a sad reality. There's no reason to be ashamed of being a Democrat."
In addition to Thomas and Holland, Robert Comstock, Kathie Darby, Jeff Merchant and Becky Moss are competing at the state convention for the Democratic Party chairman post.
Rob Miller, who served as party vice chairman under Holland, briefly campaigned. In 2017, Miller withdrew from the chairman's race and left the Democratic Party amid allegations of sexual misconduct that he denied.