History of the UTGOP
As Utah politics was reorganized after the Woodruff Manifesto, and a Republican as well as a Democratic party emerged statewide, many assumed that the traditional ties of various LDS Church leaders to the Democratic philosophy would make Utah a strong Democratic state. This view was strengthened in the minds of many because of Republican party opposition to polygamy. However, events would prove this assessment inadequate. In 1894, Republican Frank J. Cannon was elected Utah’s delegate in Congress, and the Republicans dominated the state constitutional convention by a forty-seven to thirteen count over the Democrats. Despite some Democratic success, after 1900 Utah Republicans would become strong, and in some areas even dominant.
The early twentieth century was characterized by the rise of Mormon apostle and U.S. Senator Reed Smoot to political power; and his political alliance of Mormons and Gentiles led to a strengthened Republican party. During these same years, a number of LDS Church leaders, including John Henry Smith, Joseph F. Smith, Francis M. Lyman, and others would actively seek to tie the church to the Republican banner. By 1912 the GOP (“Grand Old Party” as the Republicans were nicknamed) was sufficiently strong to secure the state’s votes for William Howard Taft, Utah being one of only two states to support the incumbent president’s bid for reelection against Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Republican party influence was challenged in 1904 when former Republican senator Thomas Kearns assisted in organizing the American party. Opposing LDS Church influence in political and economic areas and assisted in their efforts by Kearns’ Salt Lake Tribune, the American party achieved a measure of success and for a period dominated Salt Lake City and Ogden City government. However, the strength of the Smoot machine ultimately would lead to the demise of the American party.
The deaths of Joseph F. Smith and Thomas Kearns, the defeat of Representative Joseph Howell in 1916, and the emergence of a new post-war generation in both the Republican and Democratic parties ushered in a period of political changes. The period between the wars saw a sort of balance in Utah politics between the two major parties. During the 1920s, the strength of the Republican party was centered in Salt Lake, Weber, Davis, and Utah counties, and the party was influenced by a semi-secret faction known as the “Order of Seven”, which gained its name because the original seven members were charged with recruiting seven more, who in turn would recruit seven, and so on until they successfully dominated the party and controlled the state political system. In part, the Order of Sevens represented an attempt on the part of non-Mormon Republicans to play a larger role in party matters. Built on patronage, the Order of Sevens was particularly important in the defeat of incumbent governor Charles Mabey in 1924. Splits within the party in the election of 1928 led to the ultimate destruction of the organization, though some of the original members of the group still had clout within the party as late as 1948. Some historians have seen the Sevens as the closest thing to a political machine in Utah history.
During the 1930s, the Republican party suffered several major defeats in Utah. Reed Smoot was defeated by Elbert D. Thomas in 1932. That same year, Franklin Roosevelt proved to be very popular among Beehive State voters, carrying the state and bringing local Democrats to power with him. In every national election from 1932 to 1948, the Democratic party’s appeal continued.
In the years immediately following World War II, Republicans in Utah, following national patterns, reasserted themselves. Arthur V. Watkins, a Republican moderate, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946. Other important Republican figures in the post-war period included Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Dwight Eisenhower, and Congressmen William A. Dawson, Henry Aldous Dixon, and Douglas Stringfellow. The latter–considered an up-and-coming party leader, who even attracted national attention–was forced to resign when it became known that he had contrived a heroic war record.
From 1948 until 1964 the dominant figure in the state Republican party was conservative and controversial J. Bracken Lee. After unsuccessful races for governor and Congress in the early 1940s, Lee, who served six terms as mayor of Price, in 1948 defeated incumbent Herbert Maw for the governor’s chair. Four years later, Lee handily defeated his Democratic opponent, Earl J. Glade. In 1956 Lee was denied renomination for a third term and ran as an independent. Despite drawing some 94,000 votes, more than 28 percent of the vote cast, Lee did not prevent Republican George D. Clyde from retaining the governorship for the GOP.
Clyde, who had been a Democratic party state delegate in 1954, was re-elected in 1960 in a come-from-behind victory over Democrat William Barlocker. After his defeat in the 1956 election, Lee continued to be a recurring presence in state politics. In 1958, again running as an independent, Lee drew enough votes to provide the margin of defeat for incumbent Republican Senator Arthur V. Watkins in his race against Democrat Frank E. Moss. Watkins, who had served as senator since 1946, had angered many conservatives, Lee among them, for his role in chairing the committee that censured Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. After his 1958 defeat, Lee entered a second phase of political activity with his election in 1959 as mayor of Salt Lake City. Always controversial, Lee nonetheless was reelected in 1963 and 1967. Though he briefly sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1964, Lee was not a major factor in his party’s affairs. His outspoken conservative views, especially his opposition to the income tax, gained him a national audience. In 1956, he was the vice-presidential nominee of the Conservative party of Texas. Four years later, the Conservative party of New Jersey put Lee on the ballot in that state as a candidate for president.
In the 1950s other Republicans emerged, including Wallace F. Bennett, who defeated incumbent U.S. Senator Elbert D. Thomas in 1950. Bennett, who would serve in the Senate until he retired in 1974, was known as a fiscal conservative and supporter of national defense.
Conservatives dominated the Utah GOP in the 1960s. In 1964, the extremely popular Barry Goldwater was the choice of a majority of Utah delegates to the party convention in San Francisco. That same year, Ernest L. Wilkinson, the conservative president of Brigham Young University, was nominated for the U.S. Senate. Wilkinson’s nomination came after the result of a bitter primary struggle with Congressman Sherman P. Lloyd. The bitter party battle led to a period of division within the party between its conservative and moderate elements that would be a factor in party contests for at least a decade. Despite these internal disagreements, the Republicans won a major victory in local and congressional races in 1966. Two years later, although local conservatives were behind the candidacy of California Governor Ronald Reagan, Utah Republicans were early and strong supporters of Richard Nixon.
Nixon attempted to influence the state’s senatorial contest in 1970, being firmly behind the candidacy of Representative Laurence Burton against incumbent Democratic Senator Ted Moss. Though Moss defeated Burton, the Republicans began a period of growing strength which was in part related to a conservative resurgence in national politics. As the Equal Rights Amendment emerged as a controversial issue, and as the LDS Church increased its effort to defeat the amendment, Utah Republicans had increasing success in arguing that the Democratic party in the state was out of touch with the views of its more conservative citizenry. In 1974, Salt Lake Mayor Jake Garn defeated Democratic Representative Wayne Owens for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Wallace Bennett.
From 1974 until 1986, no major office in Utah changed from Republican to Democratic hands. During those same years, Republicans dominated the Utah congressional delegation as well as both houses of the state legislature. Two years later, a little-known Salt Lake lawyer, Orrin G. Hatch, emerged from a crowded field as the party nominee for U.S. Senate. After defeating Senator Ted Moss, a leading Democratic liberal, Hatch became a major figure in the emerging conservative movement of the 1980s and was frequently mentioned by local Republicans as a possible candidate for higher office. That same year, Republicans also regained the Second Congressional District seat when Dan Marriott defeated incumbent Democratic Representative Allen Howe, who was convicted of soliciting sex from a police decoy.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Utah stayed firmly in the national Republican orbit, and GOP presidential candidates would carry the state by large majorities in each election from 1968 through 1988. In fact, Utah gave the highest plurality of any state to presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the latter proving to be immensely popular among Utah Republicans. In 1988, incumbent Republican Governor Norman Bangerter was re-elected in a come-from-behind victory over highly favored Democratic challenger Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City. Despite the re-election of Wayne Owens to Congress in 1990, and the upset election of Bill Orton in Utah’s Third Congressional District, Republicans were still the dominant party in the state’s politics entering into the last decade of the twentieth century.
– John Sillito