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What’s the political strategy behind the Great Republican resignation in the Utah Legislature?

Brian Albers
Four Republican lawmakers have resigned from the Utah House of Representatives recently: Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley; Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan; Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, whose resignation takes effect Dec. 15.

Call it the great Republican resignation.

While many industries are seeing workers leave in record numbers — due to low pay, family priorities and other reasons — four Republican lawmakers have left the Utah Legislature over the past couple months.

The latest is Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. He recently announced he was stepping down for a job with the newly formed Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

That triggers a special election by the Davis County GOP to pick Ray’s replacement. The same thing happened when the three other lawmakers resigned in their respective counties.

Katie Matheson, deputy director of the left-leaning government watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah, said she views these mid-term resignations and special elections as a way to help Republicans keep their seats.

“It's certainly a travesty for our state that that's how public servants are picked, rather than really playing above board and letting the competition of ideas really win out in an election,” Matheson said. “They're kind of manipulating the process in a way that is perfectly legal.”

The process, though, is the same for Democrats. When former Rep. LaWanna Shurtliff died late last year, the Weber County Democratic Party elected her replacement, Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden.

As far as a resignation, though, a spokesperson for the Utah Democratic Party said the last time a Democratic lawmaker left the Legislature in the middle of their term was likely in 2015, when Rep. Justin Miller stepped down.

Republican political consultant Spencer Stokes said legislators typically leave mid-term for either a positive reason, like they were offered their dream job, or an “unfortunate” reason, like bad media coverage.

He said the resignations are less about a grand party strategy than where a lawmaker is in their life.

“First and foremost, these are individuals, and they're going to be concerned about their personal lives and their family’s lives,” Stokes said. “They will resign when the timing is [right].”

But he said it does give whoever the county party picks an advantage because they’ll have name recognition and experience under their belt if they decide to run for election.

So, if people don’t like who the party picked to represent them, Stokes said there’s one thing they can do.

“Voters always have the ultimate trump card because they get to vote on that person in November,” he said. “The politically active always are advantaged in the electoral system — the ones that participate, the ones that get elected to be delegates — they always have the upper hand. But the trump card is, at the end of the day, that ballot box.”

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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