Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Can Lawmakers Find a Caucus Compromise?

Utah House GOP leaders told UtahPolicy this week that they are hoping for some kind of “grand compromise” with the Count My Vote backers; an agreement that could allow the Legislature to adopt some new candidate nomination law acceptable to the citizen petition supporters.

I’m pessimistic any such compromise can be found.

But I offer this suggestion:

What if Sen. Curt Bramble’s SB54 is amended in the House to provide a dual-track candidate nomination system – just like the dual-track process CMV leaders were considering a year ago?

It would work like this:

— A party candidate could decide, just after he filed for office in mid-March, to go the caucus/convention route.

Just like now, he would appear in the state party convention and seek the votes of the delegates (around 4,000 for Republicans, around 2,700 for Democrats).

If he got 40 percent or more of the delegate vote, he would advance to the June party primary.

If he didn’t, he would be eliminated.

— Or a party candidate could chose the direct primary route.

If he could get 2 percent of the signatures of registered party members in his district – or statewide for offices like governor and U.S. Senate – he would go directly to the primary ballot.

He would not be voted on by party delegates in state convention.

What is the “compromise” in this alternative?

Well, there likely would be some candidates who, for reasons I will explain below, want to go before the delegates.

And there would be candidates who would not want to go before the party delegates.

The first group include guys like U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

Chaffetz addressed the Utah House this past week, and articulately explained why he would never have won his 3rd District seat if not for the GOP’s caucus/convention system.

Chaffetz claimed that he was poor and had little name I.D. when he challenges former GOP Rep. Chris Cannon in 2008. The C/C gave him a chance to meet with delegates/party insiders for two years one-on-one and win them over – thus leading to his victory.

Actually, Chaffetz was not “unknown” before he ran for Congress. In Deep BYU Blue Utah County, Chaffetz was a well-known Cougar football player.

He ran former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s successful 2004 gubernatorial campaign and served as Huntsman’s first chief of staff. In short, he was a known party insider, especially in Utah County.

But I’ll give Chaffetz his political rags-to-riches claim.

Chaffetz actually finished ahead of Cannon in the 2008 GOP convention (Cannon was never much liked, even by party loyalists).

Now Chaffetz was in a primary. And how did he fair in a head-to-head with the better know and better financed Cannon?  He beat him.

So the argument that Chaffetz makes that delegates got him elected is false – he won in a primary.

Under the CMV direct primary Chaffetz would have bypassed the delegates and just faced Cannon in a primary – which is where he beat him anyway.

My example of an inadequate C/C process is (you are probably getting sick of this) former Gov. Olene Walker in 2004.

Just several months in office, Walker, the first female Utah governor, had an approval rating of around 80 percent.

Yet she was a moderate who strongly supported Utah school teachers and public and higher education.

She finished fifth in the state GOP convention and was out of office – with no vote of Utah citizens in a primary.

If the dual-track option had been in effect over the last 20 years, Chaffetz could still have gone through the caucus/convention system and been put on the ballot by delegates.

And Walker could have gone through the 2 percent route and still have been on the Republican ballot.

That, my friends, is a win-win compromise.

Below is a final stab at Republican insiders who claim the C/C system is the best:

This week BYU political science professors – working under the independent operation known as Utah Data Points — found in re-evaluating results of a May 2013 poll that the 2012 caucus attendees in the Democratic and Republican parties were NOT politically more astute than regular citizens – or the 80 percent who don’t go to their neighborhood party caucuses in late March of each election year.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite than what anti-Count My Vote party insiders are claiming.

Those insiders say the caucus system is superior because it allows politically inspired folks to elect delegates who, in turn, really get to know the candidates – and so make more intelligent and informed decisions on who should be the party nominee.

Kelly Patterson of Utah Data Points specifically singles out Paul Mero, head of the conservative Sutherland Institute political/social think tank. Mero recently wrote that delegates are much superior to “irresponsible voters” in making key decisions, for the delegates are better informed.

But, in fact, in analyzing the political smartness of regular voters and caucus attendees, Utah Data Points found that the caucus attendees were just barely more aware of political issues than were citizens.

There is one big difference between GOP caucus attendees and regular Republicans: The attendees are much more conservative than rank-and-file Republicans.

Maybe that’s why we get such conservative legislators and laws.

Anyway, the dual-track process might just change that – if legislators would pick that compromise.

And that’s why so many GOP lawmakers likely won’t go for drastically amending SB54.