The State of the Utah Republican Party

lavarr policy insightsSo, the most conservative Republican governor since J. Bracken Lee (who served 60 years ago) failed to win 50 percent of the vote in his party’s state convention. Just not conservative enough. What’s more, sentiment exists within the party to further punish him and other mainstream Republicans who gathered signatures to get on the ballot (see Bob Bernick story).

This tells you a great deal about the state of the Republican Party today.

After the GOP state convention and Chairman James Evans’ speech there, it couldn’t be more clear that a gigantic chasm exists today in the Republican Party. It’s essentially two very different parties.

One faction is the party of right-wing fundamentalists, of ideological purity tests, obedience pledges, and demands to appear before the “Central Committee.” This is the party of political elitists who feel they are superior and know all the answers because they’ve “studied the issues.” They believe other citizens are lemmings who follow the establishment, not qualified to vote on party nominees. This is the party of policy naïvete and conspiracy theories, of simplistic solutions to complex problems. It is the party of shrinking the tent, of kicking out mainstream heretics who have dared to gather signatures. 

The other faction of the party is mainstream conservative Republicans who believe the party should be inclusive, who believe Utah voters are intelligent enough to make their own decisions, who welcome newcomers, including women and minorities (and maybe even immigrants and refugees), who believe conservative principles can be applied in practical ways to solve problems at state and national levels. They care about sensible public policy, not just political ideology.

This chasm between the two factions is borne out by the recent Utah Foundation study documenting differing priorities and views between delegates and Republican voters. Delegates are not representative of the broader Republican population.

The purist faction includes current state Republican Party leadership, many county party leaders, many Central Committee members, and many, but certainly not all, state delegates.

The mainstream faction includes many former party chairs, former governors and members of Congress, many former and current state legislators, most business leaders, some delegates, and the vast majority of Utah citizens.

How did this great schism occur? It happened over many years as people with extremist personalities gravitated toward political party involvement. Some (certainly not all) use politics to take out their frustrations. They are angry, so they blame anyone in power. Most folks don’t have time to spend hours in party meetings arguing over arcane convention rules. They have better things to do than post incessantly on Facebook and Twitter. So the activists for whom politics is a religion and crusade have slowly but surely taken over the party apparatus.

However, the mainstream wing controls most of the money in politics. People with money tend to belong to the practical wing of the party (that should be telling). Any mainstream leader or business person would be nuts to contribute to today’s Republican Party. 

At this time, members of the practical wing and purist wing both call themselves Republicans. But as the schism continues and widens, as the right-wing extremists push out anyone who differs from them, the day may come when the practical wing will break away and let the right-wing purists have their own little, ever-shrinking, party of zealots.

However, that may not need to happen. The beauty of SB54 and the Count My Vote initiative is that it invites mainstream Utahns into the nomination process, breaking the party zealots’ control of who runs for office. That’s why they hate it so much. Everyone gets to have a say. That’s why this fundamental shift is so important. If mainstream folks have a voice in selecting candidates, perhaps they will stay in the party.

In addition, it’s important to remember that without SB54, the caucus/convention system would have been obliterated. Gone forever. Replaced with a direct primary. The SB54 compromise allowed the current system to continue, along with an alternative path (gathering signatures) to the primary ballot. Delegates and people who care about the caucus/convention system should be thanking Gov. Herbert and the Legislature, not vilifying them.

Thus, irony of ironies, SB54 is saving the Republican Party from itself.