It’s not often that Cache Valley Republicans have primary challenges, so the fact that two sitting legislators face runoffs this year might lead one to wonder if something has changed within the political party that has dominated local politics for years.
Val Potter thinks so. The two-term state representative said he sees a definite split in the ranks of Utah Republicans between traditional conservatives and “ultra-conservatives.” He characterizes himself as one of the former and says that puts a target on his back.
“Certainly, there’s a divide in the party,” Potter told The Herald Journal in a response to a question on the topic. “There’s an extreme brand, an ultra-conservative brand of the Republican Party that started a couple of years ago, and they’re trying to chisel away at the party and get every Republican to go more extreme in their views. My challenger would fit into that category.”
Potter’s challenger is Mike Petersen, who doesn’t shy away from criticizing Potter and other legislators for what he sees as big-government policies like last year’s controversial tax overhaul, which was repealed after opponents — Petersen among them — petitioned against the measure. But he says he would not use the word “divide” to describe the current state of his party.
“A divide sort of sounds negative, but I think people are so appreciative, people are so glad that they have a choice,” Petersen said. “They can go with the status quo, with the good old boys and what they’re doing, or they’re seeing another option of fewer taxes, less government, more liberty and being listened to.”
Petersen said when he looks at the Legislature, he sees “a lot of Republicans who don’t vote so Republican.”
Potter defended the Legislature’s work on tax reform, noting it offered an overall $160 million tax cut that critics failed to recognize in their anger over hikes in two areas: gas and food.
“They got very worked up over the tax reform bill last December, even though it was repealed,” Potter said. “They’re still hung up on food tax and gas tax, and that’s why they’re coming after me.”
Cache Valley’s other Republican legislative primary, the Senate District 25 race between incumbent Lyle Hillyard and challenger Chris Wilson, also features differing views on last year’s failed tax-reform bill, but both candidates paint their contest as a friendly rivalry of sorts.
Wilson has spoken against last year’s tax reform measure, while Hillyard was one of its sponsors. Wilson’s signature issue, however, has been unseating a senator who he believes has been in office long enough.
“I’m going up against a 40-year incumbent. I believe in term limits,” Wilson told The Herald Journal last week. “My family has been a close friend of his family for a long time. I appreciate his 40 years of service, but like my slogan says, I believe it’s time for a change, it’s time for new blood.”
Hillyard, who has only faced one other primary challenger in his four decades at the Legislature, said he decided to seek another term at the urging of colleagues.
“What really prompted me this year to run again is the Senate leadership came to me and said revenue sources in the state are decreasing. We’ve got to make some pretty dramatic changes and because of your experience, you’re the one to do it,” Hillyard said. “I spent 12 years doing the whole budget when we had big surpluses and big downturns, and I was able to navigate that through with no Triple A bond rating lost for the state.”
Hillyard said he doesn’t perceive a major rift in the Republican Party and appreciates that his primary race has been civil.
“I don’t think my opponent’s been really negative and against me. It hasn’t been mean-spirited,” Hillyard said, adding that on his side of things, he makes it a point never to even mention an opponent’s name — “never have, never will.”
Cache County Republican Party Chairman Chris Booth acknowledged there are some divisions in the party of late, but he doesn’t see this as necessarily a bad thing.
“This happens I think within all parties … you have a little bit different ideologies,” Booth said. “It’s great, because it gives people an option. If the incumbent ends up winning the election, it makes them a better public official. They’ve been forced to sharpen their pencil, so to speak.”
All four Republican legislative candidates were featured in an online forum Wednesday night sponsored by the Cache County Republican Party. It can be replayed on the party’s Facebook page.
Ballots for the primary will be mailed out June 9 and must be either dropped off at a designated site or put in the mail by election day, June 30. There will be no in-person voting locations on Election Day. In keeping with recent legislation, this year’s primary elections will be conducted entirely by mail.