Analysis: Democrats may see an opening in the fight over SB54

Utah State CapitolIn the 2016 Utah elections, SB54 – the new dual-route to a party’s primary law – had little effect on outcomes.

Yes, many big name officeholders took the petition-gathering route – like GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

But they also took the caucus/delegate/convention route as well – as allowed under SB54.

Herbert and Lee – as did legislative Republicans in their same situation – got at least 40 percent of their delegate vote at the convention, and so advanced to the GOP June primary under the old caucus/convention system AND the new voter petition signature process.

However, in the last hour of the 45-day 2017 Legislature state House members changed SB114 – initially aimed as a plurality fix under SB54 – to allow political parties to take away the “both” option.

A political party could choose to have their candidates take either the petition route, or the C/C route, but not both at the same time.

If the substituted SB114 had passed the Senate (a behind the scenes agreement with Senate Republicans ensured SB114 would NOT pass the Senate), the compromise between Count My Vote backers and GOP legislators back in 2014 would have fallen apart.

But UtahPolicy has noticed some interesting House votes just before adjournment Thursday night by a group not much affected by SB54 — Democratic legislators.

Yes, Democratic legislative candidates and the state Democratic Party have to follow SB54 rules.

But the practical politics is that Democrats aren’t worried about or fighting over SB54 – not like Utah Republicans have been, basically splitting their party into different factions.

So, we see that 9 of the 13 House Democrats first voted to adopt the 6th substitute of SB114 – over the objections of the bill’s sponsors (Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, in the House).

And then the 9 switched positions and voted AGAINST the very version of SB114 that only moments before they had supported.

This occasionally happens in the Legislature – a lawmaker will support an amendment or substitute and then turn around and vote against final passage of the bill they amended.

But not often.

And the fact that 9 Democrats did this did not go unnoticed: McCay noted in his summary on SB114 that he would be “watching who voted for the 6th substitute and then vote no” on the final passage of the bill.

What’s going on here?

How about power politics at its best.

I explain it this way:

SB54 has apparently torn county and state Republican parties apart.

And – under those circumstances – Democrats see an opening.

Maybe not a big one, but when you are at record low numbers in the Utah House and Senate (13 and 5, respectively), you take what you can get.

Here’s a possible scenario:

— A moderate Republican candidate – fearing being eliminated by archconservative delegates under an SB114-modified process – chooses only the petition route.

A delegate-backed candidate in the same race gets the party’s official support in the primary.

Bitterness ensues.

If the petition route candidate wins the primary, the Republican Party is in the weird position of not backing its own nominee.

If the delegate-route candidate wins the primary, he could be crippled by the petition route candidate refusing to endorse him, maybe even supporting the Democratic candidate.

Thus the open door for Democrats in the final election – and the reason 9 House Democrats voted to substitute SB114 with the 6th alternative.

But why, then, did they turn around and vote against SB114 on final passage?

Because they wished to keep their promise to CMV to back the original SB54 compromise – and a vote for the final bill would break that promise made several years ago.

And they knew that the final passage of SB114 didn’t need their few votes, anyway. It was going to the Senate without them.

Now, there may be other reasons for the 9’s actions.

And, indeed, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, notes he voted for the substitute, and voted for the bill – so he didn’t switch his votes.

“It was the last hour of the session. There were several substitutes offered. It was kind of confusing,” said King.

And it may have been that his party colleagues didn’t like the way the bill was being changed and voted through so quickly at the last minute, he added.

Still, some House Democrats may have seen a small election opening under SB54/SB114 and the mess the Utah Republican finds itself in today.