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What Gov. Cox thinks about the shifting politics and identity of the ‘New Utah’

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Utah State Capitol Friday, March 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Some police statements made during internal investigations into shootings and other high-profile incidents will no longer be accessible to the public under a law that Cox plans to sign. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Utah State Capitol Friday, March 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

A new Utah is here.

With more people moving to the state, the population is becoming more diverse, residents are growing older and Utah is now the seventh most expensive state by median home price nationwide, according to a recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Those changes are reflected in an evolving identity.

Utahn’s politics are shifting, and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is declining as well. In fact, more Americans are choosing not to associate with any organized religion.

Gov. Spencer Cox is well aware of the changes. He recognizes the Beehive State doesn’t look the same as it did when he was a kid or even a young adult. To some outsiders, he knows Utah is seen as a “weird religious state,” and “ultra conservative,” but that hasn't deterred people.

“It's a place where people want to live,” he said.

Utah, Cox said, has a unique identity, especially when it comes to religion. Even with the LDS Church losing membership locally, he believes Utah will “always be seen as kind of that LDS state.” He predicts that even if the Latter-day Saint population were to drop from around 65% to say, 40%, Utah would still have more members than “any single population anywhere else.”

He’s more concerned about the overall decline of religious participation.

“I do think that there are serious impacts to our state, to our country, with the decline in religious attendance only because that's where people found community,” Cox said.

He added religious congregations were often a place where Utahns made friends, found support and were uplifted. With the decline in attendance, he’s worried generations will turn to “unhealthy” avenues to find community and connection, like social media. Cox and other state leaders recently cracked down on social media companies for what they consider to be a dangerous influence on youth mental health, even taking the initiative to sue TikTok.

“If people aren't interested in religion, can we find other institutions or build other institutions that can bring people together in healthy ways to lift each other?” he said.

When it comes to the changing political landscape of the state, Cox said he doesn’t think Utah will lose its conservative spark, either. As people began to migrate from largely Democratic states, like California, Cox said he was under the impression Utah could flip from reliably Republican to either a purple or slightly blue state.

“I used to believe that. I believe it a lot less now,” he said.

From his perspective, more conservative than liberal people are calling Utah home. He pointed to Californians leaving for Utah as an example, and said “their politics often tends to be more extreme than conservatives here in Utah.”

Cox’s observation does match a national trend of people with conservative ideologies moving to states that are predominantly red while those with more liberal views are going to states that are predominantly blue, with hot spots like Texas and Colorado pulling in new residents from other parts of the country. In Utah, just over 50% of the voting population is registered Republicans.

Still, Cox wonders if the changing politics of the state will further drive a wedge between Utahns.

“I do worry about a polarization in our politics happening here. We may stay a red state, but do we become a more divided state? And that's, like the rest of the country, something I hope won't happen.”

Season 5 of State Street has been going deep on myth-busting Utah stereotypes — and what that says about where we’re going. Catch up on the full season wherever you find your podcasts or check out our YouTube playlist.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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