Bob Bernick’s Notebook: What Does the Future Hold for Utah Republicans and Democrats?

Bob BernickYou might expect, loyal UtahPolicy readers, that two weeks from a huge election I would opine about the U.S. presidential race, or the 4th District contest, or some such.

But, no, this week I use the crystal ball to look beyond Nov. 8. – way into next summer.

What? There are elections next summer?

Yes! For the chairmanships of the Utah Republican and Democratic parties.

For most Utahns, these are unimportant.

Who cares about who holds those volunteer posts?

But for partisan officeholders – especially legislative candidates – the state and county parties are true sources of support, both financial and organizational.

James Evans is finishing up his second, two-year term as chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

And it has been one of the most controversial chairmanship terms in recent memory – for the party’s battle against Count My Vote and SB54.

Evans tells UtahPolicy that he is “intrigued about the possibility” of a third term as chairman.

Why anyone would even want another two years in the GOP’s SB54 tornado is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, Evans’ own vice chairman, Phil Wright, reportedly has been calling around to some possible supporters saying he’s interested in running for chairman next year.

Such infighting would not be exceptional. 

A year ago, when Evans was unopposed for a second term in the GOP state convention, Evans actually backed a personal friend, Rick Votaw, for the vice chairman’s job. 

But Wright, a darling of the archconservative right wing, won the spot instead in the state delegate vote – and, unfortunately, Votaw has since passed away.

Only a few former GOP chairs ever sought a third term, and those guys were historically non-controversial chairs – unlike Evans.

On the Democratic side, who knows at this point who will follow Peter Corroon – the former Salt Lake County mayor who has made no secret that he doesn’t want to serve a second two-year term.

Corroon succeeded state Sen. James “Mata Hari” Dabakis – who has turned out to be one of the real characters of Utah progressive politics.

Corroon is known for being one of the more quiet, humble of politicos. And the Rah-Rah side of being a party chairman has never suited him well.

In days gone by, on the Republican Party side it was the major officeholder who faced re-election in the next cycle that got to pick – or least have a huge say in who would be – the next state party chairman.

To a large degree that was because it was the next cycle governor or U.S. senator who was expected to raise a lot of cash for not only his own re-election campaign, but also for the state party – to help out with get-out-the-vote efforts and down-ballot candidate financing, and such.

That tradition has fallen away.

Democrats, on the other hand, have had some really bitter intra-party fights for state chair – like the epic battle back in the late 1980s between the Scott M. Matheson wing of the party and the organized labor side.

In any case, while there was a lot of talk last year about someone more SB54-friendly challenging Evans, in the end no one did.

Evans admits he has had to “economize” state party operations – the party owes its SB54 lawyers more than $300,000, although they say they will donate much of those fees if the party can’t raise the cash.

Evans is dedicating the GOP’s share of personal income tax “check a buck” program to the fees, but is otherwise trying run the party with donations from rank-and-file Republicans who support the party’s SB54 battles, as many of the traditional “big donor” folks are sitting on their wallets.

Evans said outside of the attorney fees, the party owes around $111,000 – including rental fees for the halls of the last two state party conventions. 

And folks with means have pledged $145,000, the money yet to be collected, says Evans. “We are not in financial trouble.”

“We are economizing” to spend money on get-out-the-vote and paying for neighborhood walkers in targeted legislative districts – the usual party expenses aimed at getting Republicans elected.

The traditional downtown hotel Election Night bash, which cost around $20,000 just for the ballrooms, etc., was dumped this year in favor of a Nov. 8 get-together at the top of the University of Utah Rice-Eccles Stadium, which costs less than $10,000, said Evans.

“So we try to save money, and we’re being criticized for even that,” says a rather frustrated Evans – leading to UtahPolicy’s question of why in the heck he would want to do this again.

The next chairs for both parties will have some real work to do, especially in the Utah Republican Party which will have to do fence-mending with disaffected Republicans over Donald Trump and/or SB54.

Several years ago, after an election cycle, the GOP had around $100,000 in unpaid bills. 

Long-time GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch stepped in and paid off most of that debt – having at the time several million dollars in his campaign war chest.

Many of the GOP’s state delegates and members of the Central Committee are not fans of Hatch anymore, however.

And even though Hatch promised four years ago he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2018, now he appears to be fudging on that pledge.

With a Hatch-retire movement among the party’s second-tier of leaders, who knows if Hatch will be willing to financially bail out the state party again.

So, who wants to run for Republican and Democratic party chairs at next summer’s conventions?

Who would even want these jobs? I ask.