While Utah’s second-most Republican Legislature in the past 80 years convenes Monday, some leaders surprisingly say it still may act more moderate than in recent years — and be less prone to enact recent right-wing “message bills” on such things as federal lands, abortion or gun rights.
That’s because most former big-name conservative leaders will be gone — and one of every four lawmakers will be new. They were elected as the tea party and other ultraconservatives saw their power diluted at party caucuses through what many call the “Hatch effect.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spent millions to recruit new people to party caucuses last year to vote out right-wing activists, who had dominated the nominating process in recent years and had helped dump Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. The LDS Church also repeatedly urged members to attend in greater numbers to ensure party nominees represent majority views.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Hatch campaign did a great job of turning out people,” says Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo. He says about 75 percent of people attending his own caucus were new. And when some tea partyers tried to advance their agenda there, “they were mowed down, and I live in a pretty conservative precinct.”
Grover is one of five lawmakers who founded the conservative Patrick Henry Caucus. He is the only one of the five returning to the Legislature this year.
The other four — Reps. Carl Wimmer, Steve Sandstrom, Chris Herrod and Ken Sumsion — ran for higher office and all lost intraparty fights amid the Hatch effect. Among other outspoken conservative legislators who lost in conventions or primaries were Reps. Bill Wright, Brad Daw, Merlynn Newbold, Craig Frank and Sen. Casey Anderson.
“Any newly elected representative is going to be paying a lot of attention to people who are more moderate,” Grover says. “I think they are going to have those caucus nights in their mind.”
Because of that, Grover forecasts fewer message bills, such as those the Legislature had pushed on issues from guns to sex education, immigration, abortion and local control of federal lands. He says even if some do appear, he expects they will be “less extreme” and perhaps less likely to pass.
In the House, 21 of its 75 members are new — and all but one are Republican. In the Senate, four of the 29 members are new — and three are Republican.
The Legislature will be 82.6 percent GOP overall, the second-most Republican in the past 80 years — behind only the 84.5 percent GOP edge in 1967. In the House, the Republicans will dominate 61-14; they will have a 24-5 majority in the Senate.
Such supermajorities, Grover says, may also make some Republicans feel more free to act a bit more moderate — with less need to unite to counter more liberal Democrats.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, also says conservatives are more diverse than many may think — and some newer members might lean slightly more toward the moderate part of the spectrum than those they replaced.
“We’ve got really independent-minded people,” she says after conversations with all the new members. She says that it will be tough to see if the new Legislature will be more moderate until votes are cast, but “my gut tells me it’s about the same.”
That is partly because, she notes, many of the new members appear to be about as conservative as many former members who retired. But some did directly oppose and attack former conservative leaders for extremism.
An example is new Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who defeated Wright in part by attacking a restrictive sex-education bill he passed — but was vetoed. Nelson says that only the far right wanted the proposed ban on any sex education but abstinence-only in Utah schools.
“We have a larger number [of members] in a learning mode, who are ready and willing to learn and be a little more deliberative,” he says of the incoming group. “With more new members, we are less locked into positions. So I am hoping we can be a little less strident, a little more reasonable, listen to each other, learn from each other and make good judgments.”
The Senate had less turnover than the House. New Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who replaces Mike Waddoups in the top spot, says, “I don’t see [the Senate] moving right or left. It will be about the same.”
“Serving requires a lot of your time while you’re trying to make a living,” says the real estate developer/CPA. “We don’t pay our legislators a lot of money. Consequently, you have that turnover. It’s hard. I know that firsthand. It’s more of a service than anything.”
Democrats expect that the new Republicans will be a bit more moderate.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis — just appointed to the Senate to replace Ben McAdams, who resigned to become Salt Lake County mayor — says he is finding members “less ideological. I think that’s the result of the decline in power of groups like the tea party and Eagle Forum, and [lawmakers] seem ready to solve the problems of the state.”
Dabakis believes the political dynamics have changed substantially.
“When the tea party was in its heyday, even the more moderate Republicans were forced into a position of ideology because they were worrying about being attacked from the right.”
Newly elected House Democratic leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, also expresses optimism about the ideological bent of the incoming group.
“I am hopeful for a more moderate Legislature,” she says, attributing the change to the Hatch effect at GOP caucuses. “The base participating was broader and not just based on political ideology that was outside the bell curve.”
Amid all the changes, Grover — the co-founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus — says he, at least, “cannot imagine the Legislature being more conservative” than in the past. “I’m not sure there are any firebrands out there.”
Republicans’ advantage grows
New GOP majorities in the Utah Legislature are 61-14 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate. The Legislature will be 82.6 percent GOP overall, the second-most-Republican in the past 80 years. Also, 25 of the 104 lawmakers will be new. Only two of the newcomers are Democrats.