Fourteen GOP state House members and three Republican senators, all seeking re-election this year, are facing some tough questions by their party delegates over why they voted for SB54 in the 2014 Legislature, which ended just a few weeks ago.
SB54 is the “grand compromise” bill that ended the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition process and forces – through some ingenious law-writing – the Utah Republican and Democratic parties to allow future candidates to by-pass the caucus/delegate/convention process.
That caucus/delegate/convention process, of course, started two weeks ago with neighborhood party caucus meetings, where county and state convention delegates were picked.
The SB54 issue is more important to House and Senate incumbent Republicans this year because many insider Republicans opposed the CMV petition.
Various polls showed that rank-and-file Democrats strongly supported Count My Vote – many have even signed the petitions.
But the GOP Central Committee, Republican state delegates and several county GOP organizations took the CMV direct primary effort personally, and strongly opposed it.
Thus, it follows, that GOP legislative incumbents that voted for SB54, and are being challenged inside their party this year, will face this month delegates in upcoming county and state conventions upset over their support of the compromise bill.
SB54 is long and complicated.
Basically, it says come the 2016 election cycle, candidates can chose to gather voter signatures (2,000 for state Senate, 1,000 for state House) and go directly to the open party primaries.
Or candidates can chose to not collect signatures and go through the current caucus/delegate/convention process.
Or candidates can chose to do both – go to the conventions AND get on the primary ballot through voter signature petitions.
The current 2014 elections will be the last where ALL candidates must go before their party district delegates.
If the incumbents fail to get 40 percent of the vote, they are out of office.
If they get 60 percent, they win their races in convention, and don’t go to a primary.
If no candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate vote, the top two vote-getters go to the June primary – closed for the Republicans, open for the Democrats.
Candidates running in a Senate or House district that is wholly located within a county go before county delegates (usually slightly more conservative than state delegates for Republicans) at county party conventions.
Candidates running in multi-county districts go before state delegates in the state convention. There are usually fewer of these delegates per House or Senate district.
The 14 House Republicans and three Senate Republicans who voted for SB54 and have GOP challengers are listed below. A number of GOP lawmakers running this year who voted for SB54 have NO Republican challengers, so their delegates, by party rule, must re-nominate them – no matter how upset the delegates may be over those pro-SB54 votes.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has been an outspoken reformer for various ethical and election-related processes.
Powell voted for SB54 (he didn’t like the CMV direct primary much).
When the candidate filing deadline opened up the day after the 2014 Legislature ended, Wylder Smith, a Utah National Guard sergeant and software testing salesman, filed against Powell as a Republican.
Powell says his “yes” vote on SB54 is part of his race’s delegate issues.
However, says Powell, while a critic of the caucus/convention process – “I’ve said for years that the system allows someone to manipulate the process by picking his own electors” – Powell said he worked hard to get pro-Powell state delegates elected in the March 20 GOP caucuses.
“Some of my 50 delegates feel that way – that we are trying to take power away from them,” Powell told UtahPolicy. “But not a majority. And while my (GOP) opponent defends the caucus/convention system, so far he hasn’t come out hard against me” on the SB54 vote.
Powell says he was successful in the liberal, activist area of Park City (given to him in the 2011 redistricting) to get what he calls “mainstream” Republicans to turn out to their caucus meetings.
Powell said he warned those Summit County Republicans that if they didn’t turn out and support him, they could end up with a “far right conservative” (Smith) as their GOP candidate, and perhaps representative in the Legislature.
“I got many delegates (Powell won’t name a number) elected who share my views” on caucus/convention reform.
Powell thinks he has a chance to 60 percent Smith in the April 26 state GOP convention. “We’ll see.”
Meanwhile, says Powell, his District 54 race actually is seeing repercussions of the “ground zero” SB54 battle happening down in Cedar City’s House District 72 contest.
Iron County GOP chairman Blake Cozzens has been a leader in the anti-CMV movement. Early on, the Iron County Republican Party produced a pro-caucus/convention video showing on the Internet, and Cozzens has personally advocated that Utah Republicans should sue the state over SB54.
Cozzens filed against freshman Rep. John Westwood, R-Cedar City, who voted for SB54.
“Cozzens is even up in my district telling (Republicans) I should be defeated for favoring SB54,” said Powell.
Cozzens, a state coordinator for the anti-CMV group, Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, is quoted in the following Salt Lake Tribune article about SB54.
Westwood, a banker, clearly has to answer for his SB54 vote.
Cozzens “has gotten to a number of delegates and gotten them all stirred up, said things that are just not right about SB54,” Westwood told UtahPolicy.
House District 72 is all in Iron County, so there are more delegates than in a multi-county seat. Westwood said there are 154 delegates, “and I’m having to do a lot of leg work, more than I expected.”
“But when I reach them (the delegates) and explain what SB54 really does do, then I think I’m OK; they are listening,” said Westwood.
He said that GOP House leadership has been helping him in his intra-party race.
Cozzens said Westwood’s vote on SB54 is one reason he decided to challenge him, but not the only reason.
Cozzens said he is not resigning as Iron County GOP chair, and has removed himself from any conflicts during the county convention – which will be run by other elected party officers.
“I’m very opposed to SB54,” said Cozzens, who runs a real estate management firm. He believes it should be repealed and “the caucus system restored in full.”
“The delegates I’ve talked to are not happy with (SB 54) nor (Westwood’s) vote for it. It is a surrender and destroys the caucus system,” said Cozzens.
(It should be noted that House Republicans held several closed caucuses during the 2014 Legislature specifically discussing SB54 and possible compromises with Count My Vote to end the petition effort. CMV leaders said time and again they had the money and political support to pass their direct primary initiative should it make the 2014 ballot. And it was that CMV fundraising and citizen approval that lead to the compromise, CMV leaders tell UtahPolicy.)
“I don’t know what they (GOP delegates) expected me to do,” said Westwood. “Many of them didn’t like how I handled the whole issue – but they are listening to me when I explain why we had to go with” SB54.
Cozzens said Westwood is not a conservative voice, and Iron County should have a conservative vote in the Utah House.
In the same Cedar City area, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is also facing a GOP challenger. Vickers voted for SB54.
But the dynamics of that race are much different, says former state senator Casey Anderson, a Republican whom was beaten by Vickers two years ago in an intra-party battle. Anderson is challenging Vickers this year.
First off, Senate District 28 is a multi-county district – so state GOP delegates from that area will be voting in the Vickers/Anderson race, not just Iron County county delegates as in the House 72 contest.
Secondly, Anderson said while he would have voted against SB54, so far that issue has not dominated the campaign.
Anderson said he’s pushing both “my passion” for the Senate job and what he calls “my willingness” to represent all of district’s voters.
“You can tell about a (legislator’s) priorities by the bills he files,” said Anderson. Vickers, a well-known Cedar City druggist, has sponsored a number of pharmacy-related bills.
That’s fine for him, says Anderson. But in talking to voters and delegates he doesn’t see pharmacy-related issues as tops in their concerns.
SB54 “has come up frequently in my discussions with delegates,” said Anderson. “But the general consensus is that (SB54) is misunderstood. Mainly I’ve been trying to correct these misconceptions.”
As a former senator, said Anderson, he understands that sometimes lawmakers are painted into a corner – you end up voting for the lesser of several evils.
“I just want to bring some passion to this job – more fire in addressing the many issues before us,” said Anderson.
Powell said he worked hard trying to “self-select” his own delegates – as the caucus/convention allows.
“I’ve tried to be very visible in my district, talking time and again about alcohol reform, the environment, ethics.
“I know many legislators try to play it safe, not put their head up too high (on Count My Vote and the various compromises) so they don’t get bonked on the head by their delegates.”
Republican leaders in the House and Senate realized the possible political pitfalls for their caucus members, and a number who believed they may get a challenge from the political right this year got a pass on the SB54 vote.
Twenty House Republicans voted against it, as did six GOP senators.
Six House members didn’t vote on SB54 – they were off the floor – while one GOP senator didn’t vote on it.
Six House members who are retiring this year – and don’t have to face their delegates – voted in favor of SB54; two House members who are retiring voted against it.
GOP House members who voted FOR SB54 and have a GOP challenger. Two incumbents have two GOP challengers each.
Timothy William Spencer
John Zimmerman Blaine Hone
Christine Watkins Bill Labrum
Senate Republicans who voted FOR SB54 and have a GOP challenger.