United Utah Party’s Eric Eliason's Headfirst Dive Into Politics
A little more than a year after forming, the United Utah Party is running nearly 20 candidates in this year's elections. But even the party chairman admits the odds are stacked against every one of them.
"It will be an earthquake, frankly, if we have even one person winning," said Richard Davis, who helped found the party in April 2017 after a divisive presidential election.
The party made history last year when its candidate Jim Bennett, who ran in the special election to replace retired Congressman Jason Chaffetz, became the first third-party candidate to participate in a televised debate held by the Utah Debate Commission.
For the second year in a row, the party will have a candidate on a congressional debate stage. Eric Eliason, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop in Utah's 1st Congressional District, recently polled high enough — 6.6 percent — to earn a spot on next month's debate stage alongside Bishop and Democrat Lee Castillo.
The 46-year-old businessman from Logan has never run for office before, but said he started thinking about it last year.
"Two things happened at the same time," Eliason said. "I started hearing a little bit about United Utah, and I started getting a little bit frustrated about our system and a couple of things that Rob Bishop was doing."
When he looked into Bishop's votes and fundraising, Eliason said most of the Republican's donations came from casinos and the oil and gas industry. Bishop has raised more than $850,000 so far, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures filed in June.
"I started following the money and I was like, 'oh no, this isn't right,'" Eliason said.
So far, Eliason, who has a masters in business administration from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, has bankrolled much of his own campaign. Of the $232,000 he raised by July, $198,000 came from his own pocket. His Democratic opponent Lee Castillo has so far raised about $6,000.
"I've probably voted Republican mostly," Eliason said of his political leanings. "But I just didn't feel like any party fit me."
He describes his policy positions as moderate and fairly broad. Instead of offering many specifics on things like health care and immigration, he said he wants to find common-ground solutions.
"We need to find more bipartisan ways forward," said Eliason, who also advocated for political reforms.
"We have a system that reinforces itself, so we need some campaign finance reform," he said. "We need term limits and we need to change (to) where the loyalty is more about the country than about the party."
That echoes much of his party's platform, which centers on those same election and government reforms. The United Utah Party's platform also includes policy areas like education and immigration, but like Eliason, its positions are moderate and mostly based on finding compromise.
"What we say is, 'We're not coming up with a particular immigration proposal, but this is what one should look like. It should be designed to protect the security of the country, but at the same time be compassionate towards families,'" said United Utah Party Chairman Richard Davis.
The party is running 18 candidates this year, but its ranks are still small: of the 1.5 million registered voters in Utah, fewer than 1,000 are registered with the party. But party leaders hope to pull in support from the state's second largest voting bloc: unaffiliated voters, like Janel Hulbert.
"It's just been ugly," Hulbert said of the current political landscape. She left the Republican party after Donald Trump was elected president.
"I feel like (for) a lot of the solutions, we need compromise. We need to meet in the middle and discuss them and I don't feel like that's happening at all," she said.
Hulbert was one of about 50 people at a recent campaign meet-and-greet for Eliason in Roy, where he spent nearly two hours taking questions from the group.
"I had a gleam of hope listening to him and seeing all the other people here that seemed to have similar views," she said.
Hulbert hadn't made up her mind, but said she would most likely end up voting for Eliason.
The United Utah Party is still in its infancy, but it has caught the attention of groups like Unite America, a national organization which supports independent candidates.
"There seems to be an openness among the voters of Utah to take a look at something different," said Joel Searby, a senior strategist for Unite America who joined the Eliason campaign as an advisor in July.
Searby was also campaign manager for Evan McMullin, the independent presidential candidate who captured more than 20 percent of Utah's vote in 2016.
He believes that if there is a breakout third party, it's likely to happen in a place like Utah. "If for no other reason than the fact that Evan had significant success there at the ballot box," he said.