The Reagan Caucus wants to reclaim the Republican Party

President Ronald Reagan speaks in a White House East Room news conference in Washington on Feb. 21, 1985.
President Ronald Reagan speaks in a White House East Room news conference in Washington on Feb. 21, 1985. | Ron Edmonds
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Donald Trump solidified his hold over the Republican Party for a third presidential election cycle on March 5. But the refusal of many GOP voters that night, and in primary elections since, to back the quasi-incumbent sparked the creation of a group that intends to try to pull the party from his grasp.

Less than a week after Super Tuesday results rolled in, a new independent political action committee, the Reagan Caucus, filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission, followed nine days later by the formation of a separate state PAC, the Utah Reagan Caucus, which is actively seeking donations and issuing endorsements in the state’s highest profile races.

The two groups, joined by at least 11 other legally separate but closely affiliated state chapters, have the goal of influencing down-ballot Republican primaries away from Trump and toward the GOP policies and optimistic politics of Ronald Reagan. Over the past decade, they argue, the party of social conservatism, fiscal restraint and national defense has strayed from its roots and from its most popular president in 50 years.

Some party activists say the opposite is true; under Trump the party has returned to the bold, conservative message of Reagan after years of losing to Democrats in culture war showdowns. The Reagan Caucus has co-opted the 40th president’s name to push for a watered-down conservatism, critics say.

But Utah Reagan Caucus director Justin Stapley believes that many Republican voters in Utah, where Trump experienced his worst results of any red state this primary season, have a pent up desire for the big tent appeal of Reaganism now that Trump’s Grand Old Party has, itself, gotten old.

What is the Utah Reagan Caucus?

“There is a sizable part of the Republican Party ... that wants something different from the direction the party has been going in for the last decade,” Stapley told the Deseret News.

In 1980 and 1984, Reagan was able to capitalize on national discontent to win in huge landslide elections, Stapley said, because of his “happy warrior” attitude, promises of trustworthy spending and a projection of American confidence on the world stage.

“And I think on each of those aspects you see the Republican Party experiencing a serious departure from those things,” Stapley said.

Former President Gerald R. Ford, left, lends his support to fellow Republican and then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and running mate George Bush, seen here on the final day of campaigning in Peoria, Ill., in this Nov. 3, 1980, file photo. | Associated Press

Stapley, who served in the National Guard and Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office before entering a master’s program with Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies, said his party now appears to expend more energy tearing itself apart than advancing the conservative cause.

“It almost seems like this growing faction that was kind of built over the last 10 years in the Republican Party, they are more motivated to go after fellow Republicans than they are to go after Democrats at times,” he said. “And this has completely disrupted the traditional ‘big tent’ Republicanism that Reagan championed so well.”

The Utah Reagan Caucus aims to influence Beehive State politics in the same way the national Reagan Caucus aims to do so in the 2026 midterms and 2028 presidential primaries by endorsing “principled non-MAGA Republicans” and mobilizing voters who have signed their pledge to vote in GOP primaries.

“Part of what I feel the Reagan caucus is trying to do is to make a more visible, Reaganite faction within the Republican Party, because that’s part of the problem that we observed through the primaries is that there wasn’t really an organizing principle even though there was this desire,” Stapley said.

In the 2024 GOP primary, the Utah Reagan Caucus has endorsed Gov. Spencer Cox against his challenger, state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding; Rep. Blake Moore against Paul Miller in the 1st Congressional District; Rep. Celeste Maloy against her 2nd District opponent, Colby Jenkins; Rep. John Curtis in the race to fill Sen. Mitt Romney’s open seat; State Auditor John Dougall in the race to replace Curtis in the 3rd District; and a number of state and municipal candidates.

Moving forward, the national Reagan Caucus, working in concert with state branches like Utah’s, will be sparse with its endorsements, according to Reagan Caucus founder Thomas Howes, the editor-in-chief of The Vital Center journal and a politics lecturer at Princeton University.

The main focus will be to commit Republican voters across the country to participate in primary elections, which are usually low-turnout affairs that can be decided by the most activist portion of the base, Howes said. The caucus plans to advertise their pledge with the donations they started receiving last week.

“The primary electorate itself is only a small portion of the total population,” Howes said. “It takes a few million people getting informed and committed to voting in primaries and you could substantially change the primary electorate.”

Is there a place for the Reagan Caucus in the Utah GOP?

Fewer than 10% of registered Utah Republicans participated in the caucus night presidential preference poll on Super Tuesday.

Trump beat his lone remaining challenger, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, 56% to 43% among the narrow slice of GOP primary voters who participated in Utah. But Haley defeated Trump in two of the state’s most populous counties — in Salt Lake County, 52%-47%, and in Davis County, 51%-48%. She narrowly lost to Trump in the highest turn-out region, Utah County, 47%-52%.

While it is hard to pin down through public opinion polling, Utah Republicans seem roughly split into three camps, said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and the co-author of “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics.”

There is a group of “ardent Trump supporters” who have supported the 45th president from the beginning, another group of voters who have opposed Trump from the beginning and a group that may have liked Trump’s policies but have grown tired of his “antics,” Monson said.

“I think that group is pretty substantial, that maybe will even vote for him again in 2024, and maybe would even express support for him in a poll, but is just kind of fatigued and wishes that there was another option,” Monson said. “I think that’s probably the largest group.”

A SNF Agora Institute poll conducted by Gallup in March asked self-identified Utah Republicans to select any label they would use to describe themselves ideologically. The poll found that 31% of Utah Republicans feel comfortable with the label “moderate Republicans,” 28% describe themselves as “Trump Republicans,” 25% identify as “Reagan Republicans,” 16% as “America First Republicans,” 15% as “Romney Republicans,” 12% as “MAGA Republicans” and 9% as “Never Trump Republicans.”

Monson said one of the central divides within the Utah GOP is “loyalty to Donald Trump.” His own data suggests that there are somewhere between 40%-50% of Utah Republicans who are “fairly sympathetic to Donald Trump.” But a “substantial group” of those remaining likely “wishes that there was a different nominee (and) is tired of things the way they are.”

For this reason, Monson sees an unmet demand for what the Reagan Caucus has to offer, but not if it becomes synonymous with Never-Trumpers.

“I think there’s hunger for it,” Monson said. “I think it’s a difficult needle to thread, though, because if they get identified purely in terms of Donald Trump then I think that’s difficult because now they’re basically fighting against the Republican nominee for president. And that’s a tough position to be in.”

Where do Utah Republican leaders stand?

Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman Chris Null thinks the Utah Reagan Caucus is something of a Trojan horse, using pleasant-sounding Reagan-isms to dilute the conservative vote in Utah.

“When they say ‘big tent,’ they mean we’ll take anyone and everyone despite their values and their principles; and that’s not what Reagan was,” Null said. “When they’re co-opting a name like Reagan, it really waters down who the Republican Party are, and it’s going to be very bad for Utah if we continue down this path.”

The Republican Party hasn’t strayed from Reagan-style conservatism under Trump, that is the “exact opposite to the truth,” Null said. Trump channeled Reagan by promoting a strong defense, strong economy and a strong stance on social issues during his presidency, Null said.

Washington County GOP chair Lesa Sandberg also denies that the party has forgotten Reagan’s political philosophy. The state party platform has remained constant since 2009 and even the “more MAGA conservatives” are likely to list Reagan as one of their favorite presidents after Trump, she said.

With party processes, like caucus night, largely dominated by Trump supporters, Sandberg said, she understands why some Republicans “feel like they don’t have any power” and why they would be interested in something like the Utah Reagan Caucus to recruit a different style of GOP candidate.

“So if that’s their intent, yes, they have an audience to address for sure,” Sandberg said.

But, Sandberg said “we’ve forgotten” what Reagan’s “big tent” is supposed to mean. She’s seen “very conservative” Republicans and “right-leaning moderate” Republicans both express the opinion that the party would be better without “the other side of the spectrum.”

“Even though it’s a big ol’ circus underneath this tent, and we have a wide variety of characters in it, we all need to get together and support our Republican candidates when they come out of the primaries,” Sandberg said.