Unlike most Utahns, UtahPolicy readers pay attention to who is running the state Legislature – for it’s those folks elected by their respective caucuses who form major policy and funding decisions.
Since the Utah Legislature is dominated by Republicans – and has been for 36 years – the leadership choices by GOP House and Senate members are critical to not just the actions of the Legislature, but the tone set by the amorphous bodies themselves.
A few days after the Nov. 8 general election, the newly-elected House Republicans and the GOP senators (half or so elected this year) will meet in closed caucuses and cast secret ballots for their leaders: Senate president, House speaker and the majority leaders, majority whips and assistant majority whips.
That leadership team in each body will, in turn, pick budget, rules and committee chairs and vice chairs.
So far I’m not hearing of anyone who is going to challenge Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, or House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, both of whom have told me they plan to run again for their top posts.
But after those powerful guys, there could be some interesting changes – depending on how the GOP caucuses vote in each body.
For example, I’m hearing that House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, will be challenged for that post by House Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
If that is the case, then Wilson’s bottom-tier leadership slot will be open.
There are at least two GOP House members who have sent out emails to their colleagues saying they will run for the assistant whip post.
But half a dozen others are considering it, I’m told.
That assistant whip list now includes (in no order of preference):
— Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara; Jon Stanard, R-St. George; Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden; Dan McCay, R-Riverton; Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville; and John Knotwell, R-Herriman.
Others are rumored to be interested, but those listed have expressed told some colleagues verbally they are running, and Snow and Peterson have sent out emails announcing their assistant whip campaigns, I’m told.
So far, no one has said they plan to challenge House Majority Whip Frances Gibson, R-Mapleton.
On the Senate side, Majority Assistant Whip Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, will be challenged by Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.
There have been some grumblings about a challenge to Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, but no one has stepped forward yet, I’m told.
Likewise, no news on anyone thinking of going after Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.
Knudson is a long-serving House and Senate member. An orthodontist by profession, he’s known for his calm demeanor.
Henderson is a clear up and comer, and if she were to defeat Knudson she would be the first woman in elected GOP Senate leadership in some time.
The House has had GOP women leaders at various times, and a two-term speaker in the late Becky Lockhart, just before Hughes took over in 2015.
It used to be that a member had to be around for a while before he or she ran for an elected leadership post. But that has changed some recently, especially in the House, which has seen significant turnover in the 2000s.
Snow, Knotwell, McCay and Stanard were all elected in 2012, so a victory by one of them would mean a person in office just four years would be in leadership.
Not a bad showing for the “young bucks.”
Henderson, also, was elected in 2012.
I’m not trying to be unkind, but Democratic minority leadership in both bodies usually don’t play any significant role in state policy, although certainly on an individual level there are some Democratic lawmakers who are successful with their own legislation.
But as a group, the Democrats in the House and Senate rarely make a difference in overall state policy, or in important pieces of legislation.
An exception was GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion proposal, which passed the Senate several sessions ago only because of Democratic votes.
House Republicans, however, killed Healthy Utah and Healthy Utah advocates in both bodies had to settle for the House Republicans much smaller Medicaid expansion, which passed in the 2016 Legislature.
So, for now the most interesting challenge is coming in the House, where to top floor leader – Dunnigan – is being challenged by Wilson – a current member of the leadership team.
UtahPolicy will bring you updates on the critical legislative majority leadership races in the days and weeks ahead.
By the way, it is against state law for registered lobbyists to weigh in on leadership races.
And several years ago Knudson and other GOP Senate leaders specifically warned lobbyists to stay out of the Senate contests.
But, really, how does one stop lobbyists from talking, or even bragging that they have influence in leadership races – kind of goes with their legislative insider territory.