Bob Bernick's Notebook: Republican Caucus Changes are Too Little Too Late

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

This past weekend, the state Republican Party’s Central Committee voted to make several changes to its current caucus/convention system.

 

The aim of the GOP elite is to make the March even-year party caucuses (which used to be called neighborhood mass meetings) more accessible to possible attendees.

I congratulate the Republicans for making those changes.

But, late as they are (last spring and summer that same Central Committee refused to make any changes to the caucus system), I don’t see these changes – which I believe can fairly be called “minor” – affecting the current Count My Vote citizen initiative petition effort.

(Again, a disclosure here: LaVarr Webb, publisher of UtahPolicy.com, is on the CMV board.)

Count My Vote, made up of former leading Democrats and Republicans, never detailed exactly what the group would accept from state GOP and Democratic leaders in return for stopping their citizen petition effort.

But CMV officials certainly laid out some large ground rules.

Chief among them is that the party bosses had to somehow increase the chances that a party candidate could get to a primary election – and thus all party members would get the chance to vote on them.

Some ideas included, but not limited to, increasing the current candidate convention survival threshold from 60 percent of delegate votes to 70 percent, or even better, higher – like 80 percent.

Thus, a candidate would have to get 70 percent or even 80 percent of the delegate votes in convention to eliminate all competition and be awarded the party nomination in convention, thus bypassing a primary.

Another idea was if any candidate in convention, in any round of voting, got 20 percent of the delegate vote, that candidate would automatically go to a primary election.

Or some other kind of convention delegate action aimed at eliminating only the most fringe of a party’s candidates for any office.

Last week’s GOP CC action didn’t address at all how Republican Party candidates are voted on in the election-year convention.

CC members only dealt with opening up, in some fashion, participation by party rank-and-file members in the March neighborhood precinct caucuses.

Defenders of the current party caucus/convention system immediately cried out that the CC had addressed the CMV concerns, and so it was only right and fair that CMV stop their citizen petition gathering – just started last week after the required seven public hearings around the state had been held.

Of course, no such accommodation has really been made at all by GOP bosses.

I return, as I do ad nauseam, to my pointed example of the great failure of the current party caucus/convention system: the elimination of former Utah Gov. Olene Walker from the 2004 state GOP convention.

Walker, Utah’s first female governor, came into office when former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt (a co-chair of CMV) resigned to become EPA director in the former George W. Bush administration.

Walker sought election in 2004. But she was a moderate Republican, a supporter of public and higher education and teachers in general.

(Walker is the only PhD to be Utah governor.)

In several rounds of delegate voting in the 2004 state GOP convention, Walker finished 5th and was eliminated as a GOP nominee.

While two good Republicans did come out of that convention into a primary – Jon Huntsman Jr. and Nolan Karras – Walker never made it to the GOP gubernatorial primary.

She had job approval ratings in the 80th percentile at the time, polls showed.

Yet while 80 percent of Utahns like the job Walker was doing as governor, less than 4,000 GOP delegates effectively removed her from office.

The 80 percent of Utahns who liked Walker didn’t get a chance to vote for her.

That was not right. It was not proper. And it wouldn’t happen under the current CMV citizen initiative petition.

If CMV can get 102,000 signatures of registered Utah voters, and get 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts – as the citizen initiative law requires – then on the 2014 ballot will be a proposal to take candidate nomination out of the hands of the relatively few party convention delegates and allow anyone who meets certain standards to be on a party’s primary ballot.

The CMV idea is that if a registered Republican, for example, can get 2 percent of the signatures of registered party members in his district (or statewide for offices like U.S. Senate and governor), then he or she makes it to the party primary ballot.

There could be two people on that ballot. There could be 10.

Whoever got the most votes would be the party nominee.

(At some point, the Utah Legislature could pass laws for run-off primaries if lawmakers see fit. But at more than $1 million per primary election, legislators may think it is too costly to go to a run-off primaries with taxpayers picking up the tab.)

Yes, you could have a GOP U.S. Senate candidate, for example, winning the nomination with less than 50 percent of the vote.

But I remind the dear readers that in 1988 GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter won re-election with 40 percent of the vote. Sixty-percent of Utah voters wanted someone other than Bangerter to be governor.

In 1992 Leavitt won his first gubernatorial race with less than 50 percent of the vote. Again, most Utahns wanted someone other than Leavitt to be governor.

So it would not be the end of the political world if a GOP or Democratic nominee were picked in a primary election with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Most states today have just such a party primary process.

And we don’t see a lot of crying and whining about it.

It appears to me that CMV will go ahead with their petition gathering.

They will get their measure on the 2014 ballot.

And if current polling is any measure, the change to all qualified party candidates getting on to a primary ballot will happen in Utah.

The recent caucus-night changes adopted by the GOP Central Committee are much, much too little too late.

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