The Utah GOP’s fight for election Law as we know it.
By Zoe Woolf McGinn
As 2017 draws to a close, players in Utah’s dominant political party are ensnared in an ongoing tug-of-war over the party’s future.
Count My Vote’s pure primary plans are threatening the state’s deeply entrenched caucus-convention system.
The Utah GOP has a new chairman whose vision for the party’s direction clashes with the state central committee, the party’s governing body, as the party tries to stay afloat financially and stay relevant in Utah election law.
Factions of Republicans are divided over lawsuits, rules of decorum, and ultimately, who gets the power to decide elections in Utah.
THE BIRTH OF COUNT MY VOTE
In 2013, Count My Vote organized and launched a mission to change the way elections in Utah work.
The goal was to shift Utah’s election system from a caucus-convention system—where delegates from each party nominate candidates to move forward to the general election—to a pure primary, where candidates would instead gather signatures to appear on the ballot and face the general public on Election Day.
In order to accomplish this overhaul, Count My Vote needed to file and approve a petition with the Lt. Gov.’s office, raise money to gather signatures of its own, and hold public hearings throughout the state. If Count My Vote could round up enough signatures, its proposal would appear on the 2014 ballot, where Utahns could vote directly whether to adopt the new system or not.
Count My Vote ramped up donations, signatures and support but never made it to the ballot. During the 2014 Utah Legislature, lawmakers cut a last-ditch deal with Count My Vote and passed SB54, a bill that recognized both nomination at the party convention or caucus and signature-gathering as legitimate paths to the ballot.
“Since the enactment of SB54, there has been consistent and perpetual torture and chaos and tumult and divisiveness, and it’s been unhealthy,” said Count My Vote Executive Co-Chairman Rich McKeown. “It was an unhealthy situation, and it was one that looked like it was going to keep going.”
So this year, Count My Vote revived its old petition and started the process all over again, this time gearing up for the 2018 election.
“I have this perception, and it’s a biased one, that this is really one of the more important pieces of action that could be taken in the state of Utah because it will change the dynamic of voter participation,” McKeown said. “This should open the game up to lots of new kinds of candidates and people.”
THE WARRING WINGS
According to The Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins, who has written a book about the battle over the future of the GOP, there’s always been tension between establishment and grassroots Republicans.
Coppins describes the establishment wing as “a little bit more moderate, a little bit more business-friendly, tends to have close ties to corporate interests, and is more interested in governing and willing to compromise.” The definition of grassroots, he said, has changed over the years. It meandered from social conservatism and religious values to small government, anti-tax, Tea Party values and settled under a “populist, nationalist” banner under President Trump and Steve Bannon.
“Throughout the history of the party there’s always been push and pull, so I don’t really know who wins. I guess in a way, Donald Trump’s nomination and election was the ultimate victory for the grassroots base because the entire Republican establishment was against him winning,” Coppins said.
But Coppins points to President Trump’s struggle to pass any of the agenda items he campaigned on as a caution to calling victory for the grassroots.
“I think it’s certainly possible for the grassroots base, the right-wing force in the party, to win elections. The question is just what do they do once they get in office, and we haven’t seen a lot of evidence that they’re able to win victories that way.”
Quin Monson, a pollster and political science professor at Brigham Young University, sees the two wings at play in Utah Republican politics, too.
“I think that Count My Vote…is the more moderate, establishment wing of the party pushing back against the Tea Party that was ascendant after Barack Obama became President, after Obamacare passed,” Monson said.
Monson said the fight in Utah is reflective of the fight going on in the House Republican Caucus in Washington. The establishment-style Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, can’t gather a House majority without the Freedom Caucus, the hard-right wing, but the Freedom Caucus doesn’t have the numbers to accomplish anything on its own.
“So Speaker Ryan needs that crazy conservative wing of his party to get anything passed, and they won’t play. They won’t play ball. They won’t negotiate even within the Republican party to get a unified Republican bill because the moderate, establishment wing is willing to allow for stuff that they won’t go for,” Monson said. “I think there’s something similar playing out in Utah. It’s that the more strident, convention-caucus-loving central committee members and their allies are unwilling to compromise.”
CAUCUS-CONVENTION VS. PURE PRIMARY
The caucus-convention system in Utah provides for a small number of party delegates to choose their nominee in elections. Since elections in the state are rarely competitive, Republican nominations are often the golden ticket to victory—and that leaves delegates with a lot of power.
Salt Lake Tribune political columnist Robert Gehrke says delegates are not average voters
“Being a delegate requires more engagement, you know?…It’s the people who are going to give up their Saturdays to attend kind of boring, wonky party meetings, and I think mainstream voters have kids’ soccer games and vacations and things like that that they would rather do.”
Delegates also tend to hold more extreme political views than rank-and-file voters.
It’s this effect that allows for cases like Utah’s recent 3rd Congressional District special election, where now-Rep. John Curtis finished fifth at the convention but easily defeated convention winner Chris Herrod in a primary election.
In 2000, when Gehrke was covering his first GOP convention, he saw similar patterns.
“In that convention, you had Orrin Hatch, who was probably the biggest name in the state Republican party, getting booed at the convention by the delegates and then almost being forced into a primary. And you had Mike Leavitt, whose approval ratings were right around 80 percent I think statewide, also getting booed and he ended up in a primary with somebody who nobody had ever heard of. So even going back to 2000, you can see that the delegates didn’t necessarily represent the mainstream views of the party.”
However, there’s more to the caucus-convention argument than just the old guard wanting to keep a grip on its power.
Monson says that traditionally, the convention paved a path to the ballot for the little guy. Unless a candidate was already well-known, it would take wealth to win over an entire district, and the convention safeguards against that.
A common argument on the flip side, however, is that elected officials can lose touch with the majority of their constituents with so much of their re-election fate lying with a handful of delegates.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said he personally experienced the odd math of running for office in Utah when he ran in 2012 for the Utah House of Representatives for a new district covering Sanpete and Juab Counties.
“No Democrat even signed up to run,” Cox said, so he only needed to beat out fellow Republicans.
Cox and his opponent were competing to represent about 38,000 people and needed 60 percent of the state delegate votes in a convention to avoid a primary. Cox won over the needed 32 of 52 delegates, and that was that.
“Literally I only needed 32 people out of 38,000 to get me elected to the House of Representatives.”
After Count My Vote and the Utah Legislature agreed on the SB54 dual path to the ballot in 2014, the Utah GOP sued the state for infringing on its First Amendment right to free association.
A federal judge ruled against the party, but the case is on appeal in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The court heard oral arguments Sep. 25 and gave no timeframe for its ruling.
The controversial lawsuit has added legal debt to the party’s operations debt, bringing the total tally to around $400,000, and turned off many of the party’s donors.
Lynda Pipkin, a state central committee member from Weber County and lawsuit supporter, acknowledges that fear of contributing to the lawsuit has driven away some donors, but she says there’s another side to that coin.
“People haven’t wanted to donate up until this point for different reasons, but a lot of the grassroots people, they haven’t trusted our party chairman,” she said, referring to both the current chairman Rob Anderson and the party’s previous chairman James Evans. “They don’t trust them to do what’s right as far as the grassroots, as far as the republic.”
Pipkin sees the caucus-convention system as more of a republic than a democracy—one that shields the party from Democratic or left-leaning Unaffiliated candidates from seeking the Republican nomination.
“Senate Bill 54 and Count My Vote…violate our right to vet our candidates thoroughly, to make sure that they adhere to our platform, and to select our own nominees,” Pipkin said. “Not everything is worth fighting for, but our republic is worth fighting for.”
While the central committee’s pro-lawsuit members believe the case has a real shot in not only the appeals court but the U.S. Supreme Court, others are more skeptical. Anderson, for one, says there’s a 95 percent chance the Denver court will dismiss the case.
Gehrke says the same thing.
“My hunch is that the appeals court is not going to rule with the party,” Gehrke said, both because the case was shot down with pretty solid judicial opinions before “and also because the structure of SB54 is not different than the structure of nominating processes in other states.”
If the party wins the lawsuit, Anderson doesn’t foresee freedom from the courtroom anytime soon. He says even if the 10th Circuit rules for the party, the case will be directed back to the state courts and into an endless string of appeals.
“You’re looking at going through not only coming back to the state to address it, but you’re looking at two appeals and then back to the 10th Circuit and the cost of about two to three years of legal jousting and hundreds of thousands of more dollars.”
In Anderson’s mind, the most logical way out of the election law battle is to accept the SB54 dual path—it keeps the caucus-convention system relevant, saves the party from financial demise and frees up the party to fight Count My Vote.
All along, Anderson maintained that he had the power to unilaterally end the lawsuit, and on Nov. 1, that’s what he did. Anderson announced that he and two of the party’s top three officers, in conjunction with the budget committee, voted to end the lawsuit. Talk of ousting the chairman at the next meeting swirled through the central committee.
CENTRAL COMMITTEE CULTURE
If you ask Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson what the biggest obstacle facing the party is, he will unflinchingly say “contention within the party.”
Anderson doesn’t shy away from venting about his standoff with the GOP’s state central committee, the party’s governing body. The committee is a 183-member group of officeholders and county party chairs and vice chairs—who get automatic membership—and other county representatives who are voted in through the county-level central committees.
Anderson campaigned and won on a platform of a return to fiscal responsibility by putting a stop to the SB54 lawsuit. But a subsection of the state central committee adamantly supports a battle in court over the party’s power to nominate Republican candidates through the caucus-convention system.
“Here’s their old system that they’ve grown up in, that they’ve come to know and love, it’s their baby and now somebody attacked it,” Anderson said. “But you can’t go out there blindly and file a lawsuit, drive away your donors, and expect the party to flourish and continue to be a strong, dominant party in Utah.”
Anderson says the ardent caucus supporters in the committee are a minority, but he argues they have a chilling effect on members with different viewpoints. He said over 80 new members of the committee attended the Sep. 9 meeting and didn’t get a chance to discuss the lawsuit or the party’s direction.
“Come on Nov. 4… and watch the madness,” Anderson said. “I want as many young people up there as I can get…I want them to pack that room and watch these people and their antics.”
Extra contentious state central committee meetings have made headlines this fall, and the Nov. 4 meeting in Park City was no exception. It took one hour and 19 minutes of the meeting’s three-hour time slot to approve the agenda.
Anderson was noticeably tense and short, and the meeting was filled with shouting, interrupting, heel-digging and complaints of wasting time. “We’re going to look terrible in the news,” one man said.
However, the meeting ended on a higher note when Thomas Wright, the Republican National Committee member from Utah, introduced a compromise.
Wright’s motion included allowing the lawsuit to continue until a decision came back from the appeals court as long as no party dollars were spent on it going forward. Entrata CEO Dave Bateman later offered to foot the litigation bills.
Wright also proposed the creation of a subcommittee to oversee the lawsuit composed of central committee members Chris Herrod, Layne Beck, Helen Redd, Don Guymon, and Lynda Pipkin.
“They can go and fight that fight…and those of us that want to not deal with the lawsuit side of it—and there’s many in this room, I understand—can go organize the grassroots, support our elected officials, and focus on winning elections in 2018,” Wright said. “This is a great way for us to unify today, come together, everybody wins, and we can go out there and do what we’re most passionate about right now in the Utah Republican Party.”
The proposal was met with thunderous applause and passed almost unanimously.
“I’m really proud of this group today,” Wright said after the motion passed. “Look how friendly everybody is right now…the meeting up to this point has been pretty contentious, people in their factions. Now people are standing up there in the aisles talking to their adversaries—there’s Mike McCauley talking to Cherilyn Eagar—and they’re working it out. They’re understanding that there’s a place for everyone in this party. Everybody is welcome, and everybody’s point of view will be heard.”
COUNT MY VOTE’S CHANGE OF PETITION
A few days after November’s central committee meeting, Count My Vote, fresh out of seven public hearings around the state, announced that it would amend its petition to include the caucus-convention system and instead shoot for a simplified version of SB54.
Executives from the group said that the statewide public hearing tour revealed a prevailing public preference for the dual path, and Count My Vote listened.
Rob Anderson’s take on if he had anything to do with Count My Vote’s decision to change their plans?
“I had everything to do with their decision.”
Anderson said that, before his announcement that he was ending the lawsuit, he had never had consistent contact with Count My Vote. Starting that night, though, he started getting calls about negotiating deals.
“Count My Vote came off the sidelines for me. They were contacting me all the time, and I was like…’I’m not going to do that, I’m not promising you anything.’ So that told me I pulled the carpet out from under them.”
Anderson said the party’s internal polling, and more recently a Salt Lake Tribune/Dan Jones poll, indicated that given the choice between the caucus-convention system and a pure primary, most Utahns favored the primary. But between the dual path and a pure primary? The dual path.
Anderson said that by taking away the lawsuit, he stripped Count My Vote of its main data point to get people fired up for their petition and dashed their chances at passing it in the 2018 election.
Count My Vote Executive Co-Chairman Rich McKeown said there wasn’t that kind of absolute causal connection—there’s a broader story to it than that.
“As we counseled among ourselves we began to recognize…that the landscape had shifted,” said McKeown. People liked that there were more ways to get on the ballot. “If you’re taking something away from people, you’re making a difficult argument for yourself.”
So Count My Vote decided to give the people what they wanted and keep the caucus-convention system in its plans.
“We’ve kept the parties in the game this way, and it will be for them to decide how to react to it. It seems to me that they have a lot of options,” McKeown said.
McKeown is quick to point out that Anderson’s a good guy trying to do the right thing for the party.
“Rob has been, I think, influential in a positive way, and I don’t know what that will do to him in the party,” McKeown said. “He is in an interesting position, that one.”
Anderson says people make the assumption he is scheming with Count My Vote, and he rejects the idea.
“I’m not colluding with them. They’re contacting me because they have an interest in—in Mike Leavitt’s own words—[changing] the structure of the party,” Anderson said. “Because he and a lot of people think that these ardent caucus supporters are not the representative group of Republicans out there—and I agree with them.”
The night Count My Vote changed its petition, Anderson texted McKeown on vacation.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
Lt. Gov. Cox, also Utah’s Twitter darling, sat down to talk about how he thinks the party should navigate the mazes ahead, starting with President Donald Trump.
Trump finished a distant third in the Republican primary in Utah and won a much lower percentage of the vote than GOP presidential nominees usually do in the reliably red state.
Monson guessed that there is a significant subset of Utah Republican voters and high-level elected officials alike who are unlikely to get on board with President Trump.
“And that’s unusual. Normally, the partisans at the highest level would be the most supportive of the party’s president. In some ways they’d put on blinders, and they’re unable to see any bad,” Monson said.
Cox is no Trump supporter and was one of Utah’s more outspoken critics of the candidate during the 2016 election. But he says there are some lessons to learn from Trump.
“There is frustration in many corners of our country, and as somebody who comes from rural Utah, that frustration is palpable in those areas,” Cox said. “A lot of economic frustration as the old economy is leaving certain places in our state but the new economy isn’t finding them.”
Cox also says the 2016 election demonstrated that people are tired of talking-point politicians—they’re hungry for elected officials who can be vulnerable and have the hard conversations, and Trump fit that bill.
“I think you can do that in a Utah way, which is you don’t have to be…I guess the correct term is to be a jerk about it,” Cox added.
Cox’s advice to Utahns was to stay away from extreme poles and give the president credit where it’s due.
“You’re either for the NFL players and you’re a lefty communist liberal who hates America or you’re against the NFL players and you’re a white supremacist,” Cox said. “We create these binary choices, these false choices, in politics, and it’s destroying our country. I think there’s room to have these discussions and to stand up where [Trump]’s wrong but also to support him where he’s right.”
As for the lawsuit, Cox is in an interesting position because, as the Lt. Gov. who oversees elections in the state, he’s the defendant in that lawsuit.
Cox, who comes from rural Sanpete County, says he supports the caucus-convention system, but at the same time, he believes that primaries give rural Utahns more of a voice. Ultimately, he says a dual path is “the best of a lot of bad options.”
Cox said the party infighting that came along with the lawsuit is a big concern for him. He blames it in part on the boredom of Utah’s non-competitive politics.
“We would be more focused on getting candidates elected if we were having a harder time getting candidates elected.”
At the end of the day, Cox wants the lawsuit out of the way to focus on policy and elections.
“I’m very excited to get the lawsuit over with and then whatever happens with Count My Vote so that hopefully, by this time next year, we’re done fighting about how we put people on the ballot and we can focus on getting people on the ballot.”
Zoe Woolf McGinn
Original Article Published Here: https://claireander.wixsite.com/evolutionutah/utah-gop