2016 Party Nomination Strategy Will be Tricky

Utah’s congressional, state and legislative candidates have either already won their party’s nominations or are headed to a late June primary.

For them, the 2014 caucus/delegate/convention process is over – and may be over for the last time.

Come 2016, party candidates will have three options, and their strategy will be fascinating to watch:

— Go to their caucus/delegate/convention again, with the possibility they could be eliminated if they don’t get at last 40 percent of the delegate vote.

— Collect a set number of registered voter signatures in their districts, or statewide for U.S. Senate, governor and other statewide offices, and automatically make the primary ballot.

— Or take both routes at the same time, with the understanding that should the candidate get less than 40 percent in his party convention he won’t be eliminated, but will still advance to his party’s primary election.

Any number of officeholders UtahPolicy has talked to during their conventions this year say they will likely take the third option – gather the required number of signatures, but also go to their county or state convention and stand before their party delegates.

But a well-known GOP consultant/strategist said he believes many candidates – especially well-heeled incumbents or challengers – will “reassess” the dual option come 2016.

The reason, says the consultant, who asks that his name not be used now because he’s in the middle of the 2014 cycle, is simple:

Delegates may very well take it out on any candidate that takes the voter signature alternative – and only insult, harm or shun those candidates in their county and state conventions.

“If I were advising a candidate in 2016 – unless maybe it was Sen. (Mike) Lee – I’d say don’t go to the convention. Just collect the signatures.”

Why risk any poor showing in the convention? He asks.

With the signatures “you know what you have, you know what you need,” and by and large your fate in getting on your party’s primary ballot is in your own hands.

“I think if you go both routes the convention’s reaction will be negative to you.

“Delegates will just say “If you believe in us so much, why did you go out and get the signatures?’”

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert – who got 60 percent of the delegate vote in 2012 and eliminated several worthy GOP challengers in the state convention, has already said that if he runs in 2016 he likely will go both routes – gather the 28,000 signatures from registered voters AND go to the state GOP convention where around 4,000 delegates would vote on him.

But the consultant said such thinking – especially in major races – might very well change over the next 18 months.

Why have the bad publicity of being hooted at in the state convention?

A GOP challenger who is archconservative, and took only the convention route, may use convention video of delegates booing you.

Primary campaign ads could run detailing how you only got 20 percent of the delegate vote – and thus questioning your party support.

And so on.

That’s not to say that it would be easy to collect the 28,000 voter signatures, says the consultant.

Under SB54, the “grand compromise” bill, now law, passed in the 2014 Legislature, a candidate can start collecting signatures on Jan. 1, of the election year.

He would have until two weeks before his party’s state convention to collect the signatures of any registered voter – not necessarily those registered in his party.

For a statewide race it is 28,000 signatures. For a U.S. House race, it is 7,000; for the state Senate, 2,000; and for the state House, 1,000.

28,000 may not seem like a great deal across all of Utah, but the consultant says it will be hard work to achieve that.

And only a foolish candidate would wait until Jan. 1 to start his statewide signature petition effort.

“I can see someone starting even six months before” Jan. 1, 2016, says the consultant.

While you couldn’t get someone to sign your petition until Jan. 1, you would line up support.

It would take more than just a volunteer effort.

“There would have to be paid (campaign) staff at least coordinating the signature petition effort. If the effort was stalling, then you would need paid staff to take over” and start collecting the signatures themselves.

It could well cost $100,000 to plan, organize and successfully run a 28,000-signature effort, he believes.

While SB54 says you can’t actually start gathering signatures until Jan. 1, of a general election year, a smart and well-organized candidate would be collecting supporters’ names and contact information well before that.

“You would have all your lists ready. Jan. 1, you contact your people and make arrangements for them to sign your petition.”

He expects that come the 2015 Legislature there will be a concerted effort to allow electronic signature gathering – now banned in Utah.

That will greatly help in the incumbents’ signature process – you have emails for, say, 1,200 folks in your state House district. On Jan. 1, you send out email requests and the forms for your supporters to sign your petition and send it back online.

Within days your 1,000 signatures would be locked up.

Whether there is electronic signature gathering or not, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsor of SB54, tells UtahPolicy that he will seek re-election in 2016, and he will be very organized.

Bramble told UtahPolicy at this year’s state GOP convention, that he plans to take the dual route in 2016.

By Jan. 1, 2016 he’ll be organized, and in the three weeks before the 45-day general session begins Bramble says he will have more than the 2,000 required signatures from his Provo-area district residents.

That way, Bramble won’t be worrying, or working on, getting signatures during the session. (Bramble introduced one of the larger group of bills this past session.)

But Bramble said as of now he plans to also stand in the Utah County GOP Convention, where he could eliminate any Republican challenger – should that person not also take the petition-gathering route.

For a statewide candidate SB54 has no geographic signature requirements – the voters can come from one county or all 29.

In a statewide race, a Democratic candidate would concentrate his signature efforts in Salt Lake, Summit and “maybe” Grand counties, says the consultant.

Don’t bother wasting time and effort in rural Utah and Utah County.

Republicans on the other hand, would look to signature gathering in Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington and rural Utah counties.

The consultant says the very real possibility that there could be three or five or more candidates in the party primary ballot in a big race also drastically changes any future primary campaign strategy.

“The thing you fear – what you really don’t want – is to try to be all things to all voters” in a primary.

“That way you risk being everyone’s second choice, and no one’s first choice” on the ballot.

As the law now stands, there is no run-off primary election. So come 2016 the candidate with the most votes – even if he doesn’t have a majority – would be his party’s nominee.

Under that system, says the consultant, it would be OK if two-thirds of the primary voters didn’t support you.

“As long as you got one-third – the most votes – it doesn’t matter if two-thirds are against you. You still won.”

Thus, come 2016 and a multi-candidate primary race, it will be critical for candidates to “sharpen” their image and what they stand for.

“You need to find your niche,” says the consultant.

“Are you the true conservative in the race? Are you the candidate that stands for issue X – and issue X is a major issue in the race?

“You have to figure out your place” among the other primary candidates, stake it out clearly and often.

“You don’t want to be the second choice – because the voters only get their first choice.”

To be specific, this person says: “If you are Jason Chaffetz – and you are loved by your delegates – you can just go to the convention. You’ll probably win” the nomination in the convention, and in any case you certainly will get more than 40 percent of the delegate vote and get in the primary.

“If you are Jon Huntsman Jr., and you don’t have much of a chance in the convention, you go the petition route and don’t even go to the convention” – where you would finished well down in the pack and just be embarrassed by the result.