Now that the 2014 midterms are over, let the shenanigans begin.
Expect a number of efforts during next year’s legislative session to gut SB 54, which established the dual track system for getting on the ballot, effectively neutering the caucus and convention system we’ve used up to this point.
Party stalwarts hate the dual-track system, which allows candidates to get on a primary ballot without ever having to face the political extremes of the caucuses. It’s simply a way for more moderate candidates to get a crack at the nomination. Normally, their candidacy would be dead in the water if they faced a more right- or left-wing opponent in convention.
Even though both parties would be under the new rules, it would have the most profound effect on Republicans. For instance, a moderate candidate like former GOP party chair Thomas Wright (who is rumored to be looking at a run for governor or U.S. Senate in 2016) wouldn’t have a prayer of winning the nomination in the old system. Under dual-track, that quest is made easier. Hell, former Governor Jon Huntsman, who left office with some of the highest approval ratings in history probably couldn’t win the nomination today going through convention.
Here’s the loose thread that gives caucus/convention supporters some wiggle room to game the system. What happens if someone wins a primary with less than 50% of the vote – a real possibility if there are three or more viable candidates on the ballot. Utah doesn’t have a provision for dealing with that eventuality – meaning a plurality could win the nomination.
Enter what is being called the “Iowa option,” a title that seems worthy of a John le Carre novel. Put simply, if no candidate in a primary were to win a majority of the vote, it would kick the ultimate decision back to the convention. It’s an electoral Ouroboros – an endless feedback loop that leads back to the caucus/convention system.
You can see why that would be attractive to caucus supporters. Even if someone were able to get on the primary ballot, they would still have the spectre of the not-so-mainstream convention attendees having a say in their political future.
Going back to the convention for a final decision presents a whole new set of logistical problems – cost and getting delegates from all over the state to meet a second time could be a nightmare, but I’m guessing it’s a trade-off caucus backers would gladly accept.
Even though passing something like the “Iowa option” would be a cynical exercise of the Legislature’s power, lawmakers would be completely justified in allowing something like that because Utah’s current statute does not contemplate a primary election with a plurality winner. It’s a clean way to subvert the intent of SB 54 without going through the messy process of repealing the law.
State GOP Chairman James Evans, who is not a fan of SB 54, really can’t take any official action against the law. Many of his big donors in the Elephant Club support the dual-track system. It would be dancing with fire for him to go against them.
So, the Legislature can be the heavy and act under cover of “fixing an existing problem” while they completely gut the law.
The Count My Vote organization really isn’t in a good position to play defense on this heading into the 2015 session. The latest financial report shows they have about $70,000 on hand. Knowing who is part of the group, they could likely raise a bunch of money rather quickly if they needed to. But they aren’t the robust operation they were in 2014 when they had the upper hand…at least not right now.
A clear and present danger to SB 54 is right around the corner in January when lawmakers gavel the new session to order.