As Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, “Where shall I go?” The reply? “Depends on where you want to end up.”
House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s lusting after the Governor’s mansion has been a thick, black shadow over the 2014 session.
It’s hard to not look at nearly every move she’s made so far as part of her 2016 gameplan, when many expect her to challenge Gov. Gary Herbert for the GOP nomination.
She pulled a $300 million education technology initiative seemingly out of thin air. Many Capitol wags say cynically it’s nothing more than an attempt to bolster her education bonafides.
On day one she hammered Gov. Herbert for daring to suggest the state would take Medicaid expansion dollars from the federal government.
She also hit Herbert for being an “inaction figure” in the governor’s office. While it was a sensational soundbite, it was a clumsy bid to set a narrative - painting Herbert as an ineffectual executive.
The problem for Lockhart is her relevancy in Utah politics basically ends at midnight on March 13. She has already announced she won’t be running for another term this year. While she remains Speaker until the House chooses new leadership following the election in November - her importance will wane significantly once the final gavel falls on the 2014 session.
It’s going to be very hard to remain a significant political figure when she will be so far out of the public eye.
Dan Liljenquist’s effort to oust Orrin Hatch in 2012 is instructive in this case. Hatch was thought to be ineffective and out of touch. Liljenquist’s only chance against Hatch was at the GOP convention. When that race moved to a primary, Liljenquist found he had zero name recognition except among the most hard-core Republicans, and he got crushed by a 2-1 margin.
Once Lockhart gives up the Speaker’s gavel, she loses her bully pulpit...while Herbert keeps his. Her ability to damage Herbert will be severely weakened. Any wounds Lockhart is able to inflict on Herbert during the 2014 session will have 2 years to heal and fade away from the public consciousness.
A Dan Jones poll before the 2014 session paints a grim picture for Lockhart's statewide ambitions. Just 29% of Utahns have a favorable view of her, while a whopping 43% say they've never heard of the Speaker. The only bright spot from those numbers is those who have no idea who she is sits below 50%.
Relevancy is hard to earn and even harder to keep in politics. Remember when Fred Lampropulos made a bid for governor in 2004? For 2 years prior to that campaign he ran daily paid editorials on KSL radio. He was able to build some name recognition by doing that, but a media blitz on the biggest radio station in the state wasn’t enough for him to get close to the GOP nomination that year.
That’s the situation facing Lockhart. It’s going to be extremely difficult for her to remain in the public eye for the next two years. There’s really no reason for the media to ask her opinion on issues.
When I talk to many Republican legislators, there is a perception roiling within their caucus that Herbert is weak and vulnerable politically. They say things like “wishy washy” and “cowardly.” That may be, but he also enjoys a 73% approval rating, and he hasn’t made any major missteps since the HB 477 debacle. Once Lockhart gets away from the echo chamber of the hill, it will be much harder to find sympathetic ears in her battle against Herbert.
Time is rapidly running down for Lockhart to make her mark. Once we get to March 14, Herbert will essentially control the agenda. There will be little to no reason for people to pay attention to the former Speaker.
There is one example that may give her hope. Jason Chaffetz worked his tail off for two years laying the groundwork for his successful challenge to Chris Cannon in 2008. Lockhart may be eyeing the same path to success, but that will have to take place mainly out of the public eye. Maybe that's what she wants.
Lockhart desperately needs to make a lasting impression, because the worst thing that could happen to her is that nobody knows who she is, and her time in the legislature is forgotten.