As candidates for Utah public office begin to position themselves for this election year, nearly all of them face the dilemma of the fallout from a new state campaign law, most commonly referred to as SB 54 or the “Count My Vote” compromise. The new law allows a candidate access to a primary ballot, circumventing Utah’s traditional caucus/convention system, through a reasonably easy signature gathering process. This new process was primarily designed by its authors to allow more seemingly moderate candidates to get around more ideological voices inside the Republican Party. It also places new burdens on political parties in the state to structure internal rules accordingly at risk of being stripped of official status.
For instance, in the case of a candidate, it is quite possible that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while wildly popular in Utah generally, might not make it through the caucus/convention system because state delegates tend to be very ideological. Furthermore, these delegates can be highly unpredictable – meaning a very popular Republican governor and even a very conservative United States senator might find their futures held captive by a few ideologues at convention. Over the last few years, energized convention goers rarely resemble the voice of the people. So even if a Republican candidate makes it out of convention safely, the candidate could spend a lot of time and money back peddling for the general population from extreme positions required to escape convention. It’s simply an unhealthy process for the body politic.
In the case of a political party, it also possible under the new law that a belligerent party might rebel against the new law at any time, not qualify as an official political party and not find itself able to place its candidates on any ballot.
And, so, just recently, both Governor Gary Herbert and Senator Mike Lee announced they would follow both paths – they will gather signatures to ensure they get on, at least, a primary ballot and they will attend the Republican convention. For their decisions to gather signatures these esteemed leaders are getting criticism from inside their own party as party traitors – candidates who got to office through the caucus/convention system but who now have chosen to conform (not join the fight against) the new law.
While I certainly don’t speak for either men, I might be in a better position to explain their decisions. Not that they have any problem at all with candor, it’s just that extreme politics leaves them without incentive to fully explain their decisions.
There are three main reasons – two practical, one political.
The practical reasons are obvious enough. First, the state Republican Party is not done filing lawsuits. Under these legal circumstances it’s possible that a judge could rule in favor of the state party. It’s possible a judge could negate the signature gathering process. It’s also possible a judge could disqualify the party. As the Utah Lt. Governor recently opined, “It is impossible to know with 100 percent certainty whether a judge could invalidate the signature path or remove the party’s [Qualified Political Party] status, thus eliminating the caucus/convention path.” So by choosing to go down both nomination paths – by signature and by convention – these candidates act prudently.
Second, a candidate now has every incentive to gather signatures broadly to get on the ballot. If a candidate’s choice is to be perceived as having broad popular support by successfully gathering signatures or to have the limited party support of a relatively small group of perceived extremists at convention, what serious candidate in their right mind would choose only the latter path?
This second point helps to answer the political reason why these candidates have chosen both paths – here is the answer that both men will not offer (more so because they are both much better people than I). The “crazies” inside the state Republican Party have caused this problem.
I say this as someone who opposes Count My Vote. I say this as a principled conservative. I say this as someone who believes that a political party should choose to govern itself and not be governed by a legislature or a judge – but also as someone who knows that a party forfeits its right to independence when it uses tax dollars to pay for any of its activities.
Since the eruption of the immigration debate, the Utah Republican Party hasn’t been the same. Add to it the weird element of libertarians too cowardly and too lazy to stay with their own party and the 2016 state Republican Party isn’t Utah’s conservative party any more. It took Orrin Hatch ten million dollars to inject normal citizens into the state delegate process so he could get on the ballot. What kind of system is that? It’s not. It’s now become a gaggle of ideologues repelling average Utahns from getting involved. In this fight with Count My Vote, the state Republican Party has become its own worst enemy.
I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.