Right now, I believe the party I love is in crisis. For those of us concerned about the future of the Utah GOP, it’s time to stand up and do something about it.
As way of background, I am a passionate supporter of the caucus system. I have been a state and county delegate multiple times. Delegates in Republican conventions have elected me as both a county commissioner and state representative. I plan to run again and hope to win the support of those same delegates.
When SB 54 was presented before the legislature, I voted no. If given the opportunity again today, I would do the same. And just as important, I believe the Republican Party has every right to sue the state of Utah, as they are now doing. I have been a staunch defender of the caucus-convention system (CCS) and spoke against the Count My Vote (CMV) petition at every opportunity. So, if you are going to come at me, just know that I’ve fought the battle with you.1
If you have been paying attention, you know things are getting ugly. It is impossible to understate how divisive this issue has become. Things are spiraling out of control. If you have not listened to the back and forth between Senator Todd Weiler and GOP Party Chair James Evans, I invite you to do so now (click here).
No seriously…You need to listen…
Done? Alrighty then.
On a lighter note, who doesn’t want to read a meandering 3,000-word blog post on the ins and outs of Utah’s political nomination process!2 Even better, I promise to use as many confusing acronyms as possible (CCS, CMV, QPP and RPP…).3 So, grab some popcorn, kick back and let’s chat about the future of the Utah Republican Party.
THE PAST: How We Got Here
Okay, I lied a little. Before we talk about the future, we need to discuss the past. Perhaps the most surprising development in the CCS saga has been the spite and vitriol aimed at Republican legislators over the passage of SB 54. For some reason, it feels like SB 54 has become synonymous with CMV in the minds of party leadership and some of the more vocal members in the party.
So let’s look at how we got this piece of legislation. To make a very long story only kind of long, let me try to paraphrase:
CMV (made up of mostly well respected, wealthy Republicans) threatens a ballot petition to implement a direct primary via signature gathering and eliminate the CCS.
CMV agrees to withdraw the petition if the party changes its bylaws to raise the convention nomination threshold from 60 percent, which would lead to more primary elections.4
Despite several attempts to change the nomination threshold, delegates ultimately fail to adopt any changes.
CMV begins a well-funded signature gathering campaign.
With close to the required 102,000 signatures already gathered, several weeks left to comply and the endorsement of Mitt Romney, it becomes fairly clear to legislators and others closely monitoring the situation that the CMV initiative will qualify for the ballot.
Polling indicates, and conventional wisdom suggests, that the well-funded CMV campaign has a high likelihood of success on the ballot.
Members of the legislature begin negotiating with CMV to find a way to preserve the CCS in some form. Republican Party Chair James Evans refuses to attend and participate in negotiations to preserve the party’s right to sue and challenge any compromise.
The legislature and CMV come to a compromise that allows the party to keep the CCS in exchange for an alternate path to the ballot via signatures and the ability for unaffiliated voters to vote in the party primary.
With an agreement in place, SB 54 passes with solid Republican majorities.
Everyone lived happily ever after.
Okay, I made that last one up. But here is the deal. All of my colleagues who supported SB 54 honestly believed the CMV initiative would pass and the CCS would be gone…probably forever. While a few of us voted “no” holding out hope that public opinion might change, we all agreed that the consequences of allowing CMV to move forward and succeed would have been devastating.
And yet somehow SB 54 has become slightly less popular than ISIS amongst some of the party faithful. I’m not going to lie. This confuses me.
SB 54: The Compromise
So, what is all the fuss about? Admittedly the compromise is complicated. For a straightforward and detailed FAQ sheet prepared by the lieutenant governor’s office, please click here.
However, let me attempt to simplify.
Basically, the party has two choices. First, by default existing parties become “Registered Political Parties” (RPP)—essentially the original CMV language. Under this provision, the party sends a letter to the lieutenant governor’s office stating an intention to participate in the primary election (something that happens every election). As a RPP, the only path to the ballot is via signature gathering. While a party could still hold a convention, it could not send a candidate to the ballot through a convention nominating process. Under this scenario the party can elect to limit primary participation to only registered Republicans (closed primary).
The second option is for the party to elect to become a Qualified Political Party (QPP). This is the compromise language. As mentioned above, the QPP provides for a dual path to the ballot (signatures, CCS or both). Under this scenario, the law requires a semi-open primary, allowing unaffiliated voters to participate (but NOT registered Democrats as some have mistakenly reported). It’s worth noting that the Republican Party allowed unaffiliated voters in its primary until 2002.5
There is one glaring issue with SB 54 that has yet to be resolved: the plurality problem. Because there is no limit to the number of candidates that are able to access the ballot, you can imagine a scenario where 10 people run for an office and the highest vote getter only has 30 percent support.6 This is an issue that the legislature continues to work on solving.
Now, unlike everyone else holding political office these days, I don’t purport to be a Constitutional scholar. But if you, like me, are inclined toward a pure-strict-constructionist-original-intent type of person, we should arguably be anti-party. The founders pretty clearly abhorred the idea of party politics and at that time did not envision them as part of our nation’s future. Suffice it to say the Constitution is silent about them and any rights we may believe they should have.
In the ensuing years, states have long been involved in core party functions. Not only does the state of Utah finance primary elections for political parties (at $3 million an election), the membership rolls for state parties are collected…by the state (via voter registration forms).7
Earlier this month, Judge David Nuffer held an all-day hearing on the GOP’s motion for a preliminary injunction. For a good recap of events, check out Senator Weiler’s post here. Suffice it to say, it was not a great day for the party. In fact, at times it was ugly. Real ugly. And uncomfortable. Like stare at your shoes and don’t make eye contact uncomfortable.
There was, however, one potential bright spot for the party. While the judge was abundantly clear that the rest of the statute was likely constitutional—including the RPP section (the original CMV language), he raised concerns with the open primary requirement (requiring unaffiliated voters to participate) under the QPP section. However, despite what some have said, because there is another option that doesn’t require an open primary (the RPP route), there is still NO guarantee that the judge will find the provision unconstitutional. Furthermore, even if the judge finds that section unconstitutional, the existence of a “severability” clause in SB 54 would most likely allow the rest of the law to stand.
Even more troubling, there is a chance that the judge could simply use the severability clause to “sever” the QPP section altogether leaving only the RPP in place. What does that mean? Plot twist!!! That’s right, only the original CMV language would survive. Seriously, there is a legitimate chance that the party could win part of the lawsuit and completely kill the CCS altogether!
The Fall-Out: Civil War
I assumed that after such a shellacking everything would settle down and we could begin the process of mending the party and working together. And that’s when Party Chair James Evans officially decided to jump the shark. Look, admittedly Chairman Evans has an unbelievably difficult and thankless job (without pay!). However, everyone who paid attention to the preliminary injunction hearing was stunned when Chairman Evans appeared to declare victory. Then, the man who swore under oath that he and the party were incapable of making changes to comply with SB 54 (and that candidates would be unable to run as Republicans), somehow unveiled a new plan faster than Jim Dabakis could drop out of a mayoral race. This is where things started to get weird.
In this plan, the party would implement a “purity” interview in which a committee would interview potential signature-route candidates to make sure they were loyal to the party platform. Refusal to meet with this panel would result in banishment from the party. I am not making this up. Also, any deviation from the platform would result in some type of official correspondence with party members to warn faux Republican traitors. Oh, and I almost forgot, massive fines (upwards of $10,000) thrown in for good measure. It was also suggested that the party only certify federal candidates and not state legislators (an impossibility), forcing them to modify the law. Also, Chairman Evans likes to use the phrase “compel behavior” a lot. So there’s that.
Now, before I get attacked for “misrepresenting” Chairman Evans’ position—that is kind of my point. Let’s set aside the question of whether these proposals are legal or constitutional.8 Even if we try to give Chairman Evans the benefit of the doubt and presume this is not as nefarious as it sounds, can we all agree that it sounds REALLY bad? As a party we have become experts at blaming the liberal media for making us look bad. But when every single Republican I talk to thinks it’s bad, it might just be bad.
For me, this is the scariest part. While there has been a deep uneasiness over the past few months as party leadership became more and more critical of Republican legislators, it feels like Chairman Evan’s response crossed some sort of invisible and tragic line. I have received a barrage of communication from good, faithful Republicans—from regular voters and delegates, to elected officials at every level—that are honestly and seriously questioning their commitment to the party. Let me be clear, these are NOT just the CMV folks. These are the heart and soul of the party. They are questioning the purpose of the party and their continued involvement. It breaks my heart.
If this continues, I truly believe that, at best, we will see increased disenchantment and disengagement. At worst? Mass defection. We have a problem.
The Future: Market Corrections
As Republicans, we pride ourselves on our support of free markets. As such, we should have a pretty clear understanding of the concept of “market corrections.” As human beings we have a curious ability to completely forget the past and assume that the future will be the same as the present. When market corrections happen, they usually come as a shock. In 2008, we saw one of the greatest market corrections in the history of our country.
Unfortunately, political parties are not immune from the forces of market corrections. And, just like that a major natural disaster, Utah is probably overdue.9 Let me assure you that a “Republican Civil War” is exactly the type of spark that a political market correction needs. Unfortunately, the party’s reaction to SB 54 and the proposals made by Chairman Evans, are being viewed by many as a loud and clear confirmation that CMV was right about everything.
One of the downsides of being a supermajority state for so many years is that many of us have forgotten what it looks/feels like to not be a supermajority. We blindly forget how quickly it can turn. We’ve seen it happen before.
Let me be even more blunt. I assure you that the recent actions of party leadership “to protect the brand” are doing FAR more damage to the my party and its brand than SB 54 could ever accomplish. Seriously, that sound you hear? That is the sound of a giddy Democratic party licking its collective chops in excited anticipation. It’s only a matter of time before the competition figures it out.
Imagine if the Democrats held a slight majority of seats in the legislature. No really, you can imagine it if you try really hard. Now, under this scenario, do you honestly believe we would be discussing plans to limit participation, implement purity interviews and charge obscene amounts of money for candidates to participate? Can you imagine the party suing a GOP Governor and Lt. Governor over a law supported by most of the GOP legislators? Can you imagine the party seeking to exclude unaffiliated voters who want to vote for Republicans?
Of course not!10 Instead we would be working with our elected officials and finding ways to broaden the base, expand the tent and improve our brand. If we want to continue to dominate the competition in the future, we need start acting like we have competition today.11
This isn’t rocket science. We have always needed unaffiliated voters. We need them now and we will desperately need them in the future. It’s pretty simple, if we want to maintain our majority we must think and act like a minority.
As such, I implore leadership, delegates and members of the party to get back to the vision of party: helping Republicans get elected. I am not exaggerating when I say that this infighting can only lead to the ruin of the party in our state. Yes CMV is wrong. Yes SB 54 is deeply flawed. But right now the party is hell-bent on proving a point. Willing to lose the war in order to win the battle. Cut off our nose to spite our face. Unable to see the forest for the trees. Pick your own cliché, they all work.
Also, SB 54 is not forever. We must fix the plurality issue—and we will. Furthermore, as a party we can start to work with our elected officials to find ways to improve the party12 and make it more appealing to young voters and those that have become disenchanted with the party and politics in general.13 I still believe that if we play the long game, make positive changes for more participation in the CCS we can strengthen the party and eventually move toward a better, stronger CCS.
We still have time to fix this now and repair the damage that has been done. Let the lawsuit play out, but begin implementation of SB 54 immediately. With real leadership, the delegates will understand and follow. No games, no gimmicks, no purity interviews and no fines. Let’s simply implement SB 54 the way it was designed and give our candidates the certainty they need to get ready for the next election. Let’s spend more time welcoming people who want to be a part of our team and less time attacking those who might see the world a little differently than we do. Let’s work together to make the best of a less than ideal situation. We can do this.
Please know how proud I am to represent my small piece of the great State of Utah. I am equally proud to do so as a Republican. I have been surprised to learn that the thing my colleagues across the nation admire most about Utah is our ability to put aside differences and collaborate together to solve difficult issues. That is the Utah way. That is the Republican way.
1 While I opposed CMV for the usual reasons, there was another reason dear to my heart. I believe that the death of the caucus/convention system would drastically reduce the influence of rural Utah. Just as we have “flyover” states in presidential elections, without the caucus/convention system we will have close to 20 “flyover” counties.
2 Hi Mom and the random guy that comments on all my Facebook posts! Thanks for hanging in there.
3 CCS=Caucus-Convention System. CMV=Count My Vote. QPP=Qualified Political Party. RPP=Registered Political Party.
4 The threshold at convention to avoid a primary used to be 70 percent until the party changed its rules in 2000 to the lower 60 percent number. Random piece of the trivia of the day – One of the candidates running against then Governor Mike Leavitt in that same 2000 convention was….Tim Lawson, the self-proclaimed “Porter Rockwell” for former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. I love Utah politics.