With a founding unlike any other state, Utah continues to be an anomaly within the GOP fold to this day.

Early History – The State of Deseret

            Utah was scarcely explored from the first European expeditions in 1540 to its time as part of Mexico (New Spain) in the 1800s. The infertile desert landscape provoked little interest from Spain and Mexico, and thus, they had no permanent presence in the state. Utah remained a part of Mexico after Mexico’s independence in 1822. Utah officially became American territory of the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War.

            Once Utah fell into American possession, the settlement rush began, but with a particular group of people: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons. Before settling in Utah, the Mormons migrated from New York and attempted to establish colonies in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, escaping persecution in each state they landed. The isolated, arid desert provided a good opportunity for a secluded settlement with low chance of contact with others. Thus, the Salt Lake Valley became the home to the Mormons, and between 1847 and 1857, almost 100 Mormon settlements were established in the state.

            Led by Brigham Young, about 5,000 Mormons populated Utah by 1849. Young submitted a map of the proposed state of Deseret, with the name derived from the Book of Mormon, which means “honeybee.” The proposed state encompassed most of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as significant parts of all surrounding states. Although the government rejected Young’s proposal, the beehive remains an iconic symbol in the state’s history, literature, symbols, and seals. Representing hard work and community values, the beehive was originally on the Utah Territory flag and was just placed on the state’s brand new flag unveiled last year. The new beehive flag will replace the old 1913 flag in March 2024.

            The Utah Territory encompassed all of Utah, most of Nevada, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Brigham Young was appointed its first governor in 1850. However, in 1852, it became public knowledge of the church’s support of polygamy, which resulted in the removal of Young as governor and would become a crucial lynchpin in Utah’s road to statehood. Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which prohibited polygamy and disincorporated the LDS church. Meanwhile, Utah began to become heavily settled after construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which saw its final track laid in Promontory Point, Utah, driven by a golden spike. The construction brought migrants from around the country and the world, creating multiple dichotomies in the state’s now-suddenly diverse population. Not only were Mormons at odds with anti-Mormons, but all were at odds with the Native population.

            In 1890, the LDS church officially renounced polygamy. The state’s constitution still consists of a polygamy ban. Utah became a state on January 4, 1896.

Industrialization and Twentieth Century Politics – Republican Desert West

            Utah quickly became a heavy mining state that helped the state’s economy in wartime, and the coal and copper industries would allow trade unions to wield significant political power. The Great Depression tanked the state’s economy, along with what little agricultural sector it had. Franklin Roosevelt’s (D-NY) New Deal and public works program greatly buoyed the state’s economy and would organize Carbon County into a top mining spot that would be the center of the short-lived Democratic movement in Utah.

            Utah’s first election would result in its strongest result to date: William Jennings Bryan (D-NE), on his Free Silver-Populist fusion ticket, would carry the state with 82% of the vote, a margin unmatched thereafter. Not only were mining unions already at work in the state, but the Mormons leaned Democrat since Republicans initially opposed Utah’s requests for statehood on the basis of polygamy. Utah would then steadily drift into the GOP fold and would even be just one of two states, the other being Vermont, to not back Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ) in his 1912 landslide. A Republican-leaning, Mormon-run machine backed William Howard Taft (R-OH).

            FDR’s labor policies allowed him to carry Utah in all four of his elections from 1932 to 1944. Utah would vote Democrat once more for Harry Truman (D-MO) in 1948, but its history afterward is straightforward. No Democrat would win or come within single digits of winning Utah, except for Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) in 1964. Since then, Republicans have won Utah in every presidential election.

            After World War II, Utah would become a hub for outdoor recreation and tourism. Ski valleys and national parks like Zion and Bryce would also prompt the state’s population to more than double between 1950 and 1980. A young city with a growing business and tech hub would quickly find itself host of the 2002 Winter Olympics and rapidly upgrading its infrastructure to handle the demand. Today, Utah is still considered one of the fastest growing states in the nation. As of 2021, nearly 69% of Utahns are Mormon, and as of 2020, Utah had the youngest population in the country, with almost 30% of residents under the age of 18.

Geography – The Beehive State

  1. Wasatch Front and Carbon County – The corridor of communities from the Salt Lake Area to the Idaho border. Home to Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, and Logan. The younger, more educated part of the state; leans Democrat. Carbon County is situated at the southern end of the Wasatch Front. Carbon County is the second-largest natural gas producer in Utah. Once a formerly Democratic mining county, Carbon has voted for the GOP since 2000, giving Donald Trump 71% of the vote in 2020.
  2. Colorado Plateau – Home to Arches, Bryce Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Zion National Parks; staunchly Republican except for Grand County (home to Moab), which is something of a swing county, going for Obama in 2008 and Biden in 2020.
  3. Basin and Ridge – The entire western border of the state. Home to St. George’s and Tooele; contains the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats; solidly Republican.

Current Political Leanings – A Truly Unique Red State

In 1992, Ross Perot (I-TX) took second place over Bill Clinton (D-AR) in Utah, owing to the state’s more intrinsically independent ancestry. Mitt Romney (R-UT) made history by running as the first Mormon candidate on a major party ticket, resulting in his carrying of Utah by a whopping forty-eight points. Trump won the state by eighteen points in 2016, but the difference still resulted in a massive swing away from the GOP. However, this was complicated by native Utah Mormon candidate Evan McMullin, who garnered 21% of the vote. Some speculation occurred that Utah was becoming a purple state, or was possibly flippable by the end of the decade. No such competition occurred. Trump was able to bounce back to a more typical twenty-point margin of victory in 2020.

Republicans currently hold both U.S. Senate seats. Democrats have not held one seat since 1977 and have not held both simultaneously since 1947.

Republicans have also exclusively governed Utah since Scott Matheson’s (D) term ended in 1985.

Democrats have not controlled the State Senate since 1978 and have not controlled the State House since 1975.

Utah’s political idiosyncrasies make it one of the most unique additions to the Republican fold. While more socially conservative than other states, Utah’s Democratic ancestry – although short-lived – as well as its youngest-in-the-nation, urban core offer some success to certain political participants. In 2018, Ben MacAdams (D) was able to oust Congresswoman Mia Love (R) in the state’s SLC-based Fourth District. Former professional football player Burgess Owens (R) narrowly reclaimed the seat in 2020.

But Democratic success is muted outside the one district of the state’s old congressional map. If Democrats enjoy any decent performance, it’s usually due to a strong third-party candidate on the ticket, and still results in a Democratic loss.

That said, the reversal in Utah would have to come from a bloated SLC-metro area and population hemorrhaging across the rest of the state. For now, Utah appears a safe bet for nearly all Republican candidates for the foreseeable future.

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Matt Meduri serves as the Editor in Chief of the Messenger Papers and writer of America the Beautiful and This Week Today columns. As a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Matt has been working in the political journalism field for over 5 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist, enjoys cooking and writing his own recipes, and traveling throughout the United States including Guam.