Bob Bernick’s Notebook: No Matter What Happens on Tuesday, SB54 Has Already Lost

bernick mugTomorrow is the 2016 primary election day, and even before ballots are cast and counted it is a record-setting event.

For the first time, Democrats and Republicans will be voting on candidates who got on the ballot not necessarily by winning votes of their party county and state delegates, but by gathering the required number of voter signatures under the new SB54 law.

Readers of UtahPolicy are certainly aware, and understand the basics, of the new dual-route primary ballot statute.

I won’t dwell on them here.

But I offer this hard-nosed analysis of the political impact of SB54, even before primary outcomes are seen:

The Utah Republican Party and its county party offsprings have already won the SB54 fight.

How can this be, Count My Vote and SB54 advocates say?

Poll after poll show Utahns overwhelmingly support SB54, don’t want it repealed by the majority Republicans in the Utah House and Senate.

And twice in federal court and once before the Utah Supreme Court state GOP bosses have failed.

Surely SB54 is here to stay.

Perhaps. (The possibility of repeal is still on the table.)

But stubborn Republican Party leaders (and I count the 4,000 state delegates and the 180-member Central Committee among this group) will still be able to browbeat, threaten and arm-twist their own GOP candidates to continue to kowtow to the mostly right-wing delegates – and thus politically blunt a primary object of the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition and the SB54 legislative compromise:

That is, candidates can bypass the archconservative delegates and better reflect the will of the much more moderate Republican rank-and-file voters.

Why do I say this?

Because it is, and will be even more so in the future, the easier political path of a GOP candidate to earn the support of their delegates.

Already three GOP county parties – Utah, Salt Lake, and Davis – decided this year to campaign against THEIR OWN PARTY CANDIDATES who did not get more than 40 percent of their delegate votes in the convention, or took the legal SB54 signature-only route to the primary and bypassed their conventions altogether.

The state party Central Committee surprised me by not doing likewise this year.

But GOP state chairman James Evans says that primary endorsement issue may well be revisited next year – after the 2016 elections.

Even more threatening, the 2017 or 2018 GOP-controlled Legislature may well decide the “plurality” issue of a party primary ballot.

In the April state GOP convention, Evans gave a special “chairman’s award” to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, saying no one had stood up for the caucus/delegate/convention process more than Hughes.

When Hughes smilingly accepted the award before cheering delegates, I wondered what was really going on here.

Hughes was in House majority leadership when the SB54 compromise was passed in 2014, and he voted against repealing SB54 in the 2015 and 2016 general sessions.

But, you see, Hughes has always maintained that the question of plurality in a primary vote – not addressed in SB54 – is on the table.

In fact, Hughes pushed hard behind the scenes in the final days of the 2016 Legislature to bring up a bill on primary pluralities – only to be thwarted by Senate Republicans and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

So, what if there are five or six or eight candidates (all but two of them coming via signature gathering) on a GOP primary ballot?

And no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote – a real likelihood?

According to Hughes et al. that would be a problem – for it should be that a GOP nominee goes forward to the November election with a majority of Republicans behind him or her.

An answer – floated but killed in the 2015 and 2016 Legislatures – is to throw any plurality primary back to the appropriate convention delegates, and let them decide between the top two GOP primary vote-getters.

This is, I believe, a terrible betrayal of the intent of Count My Vote (which would have had ALL candidates go the signature route only) and the SB54 compromise.

For it could force candidates who only went the signature-gathering route or candidates who took both courses but failed to get 40 percent of the delegate vote back before the very delegates most likely to reject them.

The real world result of all that I’ve explained above is this: GOP candidates/officeholders would HAVE to kowtow, appease or otherwise lick the boots of GOP county and state delegates – no matter what.

For in the spring of each election year, the GOP candidates/officeholders would never know if they would face delegates in a “plurality” primary vote outcome.

Take a look at the 2004 GOP gubernatorial race, as an example:

There were at least five strong GOP candidates: Sitting Gov. Olene Walker, Fred Lampropoulos, current state House Speaker Marty Stephens, former Speaker Nolan Karras, and Jon Huntsman Jr.

Let’s assume that at least three of them – Walker,  Lampropoulos, and Stephens — took the signature-gathering route (if then available) because they feared what could happen to them at the convention.

In fact, Huntsman and Karras came out of the convention that year and into the GOP primary.

But instead of Huntsman defeating Karras in the primary, in my example you would have had five GOP primary gubernatorial candidates – and with Walker holding an 80 percent approval rating among GOP rank-and-file voters – and the chances would be that Huntsman and Walker would have been 1st and 2nd place in the primary.

Under what may well be coming in the “plurality” issue in the next Legislature – Walker and Huntsman would have been thrown back to the GOP state delegates – where the sitting governor would be kicked out of office by the 4,000 delegate voters.

Now, Walker finished fourth in the real 2004 convention and was kicked out of office by 4,000 delegates – even with a huge approval rating behind her among GOP voters and Utahns at large.

But what if she had finished 1st in the multi-candidate GOP primary (a real chance)?

She still would have been kicked out of office by 4,000 GOP delegates, and not elected to a four-year term as CMV and SB54 envisioned.

I’m sorry if my example is confusing. But the point is, even under SB54 of today, if there comes a plurality/delegate/convention alternative, the result is that moderate-to-mainstream GOP candidates will still have to bend to the wills of archconservative Republican state delegates.

And even with SB54, we would not end up with a stated goal: A Governor, Legislature, and a congressional delegation that more reflects rank-and-file Republican party voters than the archconservative delegates we continue to get via the caucus/convention system of old.

Thus my argument: The state Republican Party bosses have already won the political SB54 battle because delegates could come into play in two ways:

1) Candidates/Officeholders don’t want their own party opposing them in a primary battle if they fail to get 40 percent of the convention delegate vote, or take only the signature route.

2) GOP officeholders/candidates will have to pay attention to their delegates, for they don’t want to get less than 50 percent of their convention delegate vote in any post-primary delegate throwback vote.