Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Trump’s Meltdown Could Burn Utah Republicans

bernick mugFollowing Donald Trump’s third presidential debate performanceWednesday night, The Donald is finished.


Stick a fork in him.

But with Trump’s demise nationally, comes something very interesting in Utah: Independent candidate Evan McMullin is in a statistical tie with Trump in the latest UtahPolicy/Dan Jones & Associates poll.

And while Hillary Clinton will now win the U.S presidency easily – I think that is a safe thing to say — McMullin’s success in Utah could portend something very attention-grabbing in two years:

The independent candidacy for the U.S. Senate by former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Here’s my reasoning:

— Should Utah Republicans desert their party’s presidential nominee in 2016, it could set the stage for another defection in 2018, this time to a popular former governor who takes an independent approach to partisan politics.

Even under SB54’s petition route to a GOP primary – bypassing arch-conservative state party delegates who may never forgive Huntsman’s support of same-sex marriage BEFORE the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on gay unions – Huntsman would have trouble in a Republican Party primary election.

Especially if the Republican field is crowded with other well-known names, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, Josh Romney or Mike Leavitt.

Assuming Utah Democrats put up another lame, sacrificial lamb candidate, an independent Huntsman campaign – well-funded with personal and outside independent money and editorially supported by the new Salt Lake Tribune owners (the Huntsman family) – Jon Jr. could be an attractive choice.

Huntsman could further his appeal by promising to caucus with the Republican Party, should he win the seat.

That would ensure at least temperate support from party stalwarts who fear a Democratic Senate majority.

Inside the GOP Senate caucus, Huntsman could still stand apart on many issues of the day.

Certainly, Huntsman could promise to work across the aisle to reach bipartisan solutions – just as he has been doing for the past four years as co-chairman of No Labels, an independent solution-oriented non-profit organization run out of D.C.

As we all know, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Yes, he ran for president as a Democrat and changed his party affiliation in his campaign. But Sanders just changed his voter registration back to independent.

Whether Utah voters would look kindly on a Huntsman independent Senate campaign is now unknown.

But it would be one way for Huntsman to stay out of restrictive Republican Party bonds.

And if Utah Republicans are willing to abandon Trump this year and vote for McMullin, it could set the tone for another successful independent campaign in two years.

This all depends on, I’m guessing, what Hatch will do.

The well-respected Politico online publication recently ran a piece speculating that Hatch will run in 2018, even though he promised in his last re-election to retire then.

But Hatch wouldn’t be the first officeholder to basically lie to his constituents about his retirement plans.

The late Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, promised when he first ran in 1992 that he would only serve two, six-year terms. But he broke that promise and ran again in 2004.

About 45 percent of Utahns say they are Republicans, 15 percent say Democrats, and 30 to 33 percent say they are independents – don’t belong to any political party.

If Huntsman – who was a popular governor from 2004 until he resigned his seat in early 2009 to become President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China – can draw some Republicans, most of the independents, and maybe even a few votes from Democrats, he could win a three-way race for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

And with a promise to caucus with the Senate Republicans – and thus not give a majority/minority vote to Senate Democrats – well, that could be a winning combination for many Utah voters sick of the destructive partisanship in Congress.

Hatch is still backing Trump – while GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and other leading GOP Utah officeholders have thrown Trump under the partisan bus.

That could be only one of many liabilities Hatch would bring to a 2018 re-election bid.

Without real political consequences, an independent Huntsman could slam the Utah State Republican Party over its opposition to Count My Vote/SB54 and other foolish partisan actions that have put the state party near bankruptcy this year.

Huntsman could criticize other partisan actions, both in Utah and, certainly, in Congress – staying, if you will – above the partisan fray.

Yes, a Jon Huntsman Jr. independent Senate race in 2018 could be very interesting.

Depending on some of Huntsman’s stands (like in favor of same-sex marriage), you could even see many Utah Democrats endorsing his campaign – and a few discontented or more moderate Republicans, as well.

An independent U.S. Senate campaign by Jon Huntsman Jr.?

That could give the Utah State Republican Party some real heartburn over the next two years.