While most Utahns were outside enjoying the beautiful spring weather, first-time party delegate Ramona McKinney endured all 12 hours of the Utah Republican Convention last Saturday inside the Maverik Center.
The proceedings dragged on amid catcalls, boos, infighting and extended rules wrangling, fueled by an ongoing civil war between moderates and conservatives.
“It was awful. I don’t like contention,” the Cottonwood Heights resident says. “I would have to think hard before I do that again. I would look to see if anyone else at the caucus would rather have that opportunity.”
“I did not realize the Republican Party was so split,” said Brenda Sharman of Oakley, another first-time delegate.
She runs a beauty college with 100 often-quarreling young women. “The chaos I saw at the convention was what I experience every day with them.” Sharman said. “I might run for delegate again, but only because who is elected is important to me — and I don’t want to leave that to others.”
In addition to fighting over bylaws and rules, delegates forced two clear front-runners with high poll ratings into primary elections: former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Rep. John Curtis. It all begs the question whether the party convention has lost its relevancy.
Conservatives argue that while conventions may not be pretty, they give less-wealthy and unknown candidates the chance to compete against richer, popular opponents with inexpensive, one-one-one campaigning among the relatively few delegates.
Moderates, who backed a 2014 election-law change allowing candidates to gather signatures to qualify for the primary ballot, say conventions tend to be dominated by far-right zealots who don’t represent most party members — demonstrated by primary elections that often overturn convention results.
Gov. Gary Herbert finished in second-place at convention two years ago — but then trounced primary opponent Jonathan Johnson by 44 percentage points Curtis was eliminated in early rounds of voting at a convention last year, but then convincingly won the primary he had qualified for with signature gathering, and went on to coast to victory in the general elections.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson — who has tried to walk a tight rope between warring factions, but is viciously attacked by the right wing — said, “The delegates got a firsthand view of the contention that is occurring in the party at higher levels,” and said it is harming the party and its conventions.
The root of GOP fighting is the 2014 law that allows two paths to the ballot: the traditional caucus-convention system and/or collecting signatures. The law was passed as a compromise to preserve conventions when it appeared that a ballot initiative was about to replace them with direct primaries.
Conservative GOP delegates and party leaders dislike the law because it dilutes their power. They pushed ongoing party lawsuits challenging it as unconstitutional. Anderson said this effort nearly bankrupted the party, as legal bills mounted and moderates stopped contributing because they didn’t want their donations going to fight a law they actually support.
Adopting convention rules and an agenda is normally a routine vote that takes minutes. On Saturday, it took more than three hours as conservatives fought to block consideration of proposed bylaws on the agenda that they disagreed with.
Former congresswoman Enid Mickelsen faced a long line of motions and points of orders from the right wing as she chaired the convention. It became combative, with boos, chants and repeated challenges of her rulings.
“The damage this group has done to the caucus system is incalculable,” Mickelsen said in an interview. She said because of that faction, “mainstream Republicans go to a caucus or convention and don’t want to go again, because they are bullied.”
She said such tactics are increasingly used by the “group of disaffected people who will not or cannot accept that they are a distinct minority in the party” — and attempt to use rules to get their way.
Mickelsen and Anderson say ultraconservatives use delaying tactics in hopes that other delegates will leave — increasing their chances to push their candidates and agenda. “It’s a common tactic,” Anderson said.
He adds that it worked to a point on Saturday. Some 3,800 delegates checked in in the morning, but by the last vote on the Senate race 12 hours later, only about 3,000 participated — a loss of more than one of every five delegates.
“One leaving is too many,” Anderson said. “I want everyone participating so the convention is as representative as possible.”
Mickelsen said so many leaving “is a shame. But it’s hard for me to be critical of them. They had to sit through three hours of shenanigans before they could even start hearing speeches by candidates.”
Phill Wright, a former state GOP vice chairman and a leader of conservatives, blames any delays on Anderson and his allies for proposing bylaws attacking the power of the right wing.
“He is the person who insisted on putting 30 items on the agenda” to change bylaws, Wright said. “I went there with the hope and desire we would remove all of that, and focus on electing candidates. I am happy that the delegates felt the same way” eventually.
GOP Secretary Lisa Shepherd, an opponent of the signature-gathering law who strongly challenged assertions of the chairman Saturday, saw nothing wrong in the way convention delegates conducted themselves. “I didn’t see any wacky crazy people. I saw an arena full of people engaged in the process. To me it was very thrilling.”
Both sides disagree on how representative conventions now are.
Anderson said conventions focus too much on whether candidates are also gathering signatures — and punishing those who do — while primaries are more about candidates’ character and capabilities.
“What we need to do [in conventions] is get back to vetting candidates on who they are and what they bring to the table. Once we do that, the caucus-convention system will become relevant,” he said.
The way Wright sees it, “the opposite is happening. Delegates are focused on vetting the candidates.” Primaries, meanwhile, can be more about who has the most money to spend on getting their message out.
Conventions and the campaigning before them provide an irreplaceable vetting process, Shepherd said.
“[It] gives the opportunity for delegates to talk to candidates face to face.… You get to really question candidates about what their beliefs are, and that is invaluable.”
Rich McKeown is executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, which once tried to replace conventions with direct primaries and now is pushing a new initiative to cement in place the current dual path to the ballot — but lower the number of signatures needed in that option.
He said the fighting and overturned results of recent conventions show that “if they were the only way to get on the ballot, they may not be representative.”
But he said allowing both paths to the ballot expands choice for voters, and polls show residents want more choices, not fewer.
Party conventions can me made more relevant, he said, “If they embrace large groups of voters, they can become exceedingly relevant” — but not so much if minority factions rule them.
Will candidates skip conventions?
So if front-running candidates who gather signatures constantly get beat up at conventions — like Herbert, Romney and Curtis — could there be a point when they simply skip the gatherings and go directly to primaries with signatures?
Curtis, for one, said he’s not ready to write off conventions, despite difficulties there.
“I will keep going,” he said. “Personally I am committed to keep reaching out to delegates. I want them to feel respected by me.”
He pointed to his progress, from the 9 percent of delegate votes he received last year to 59 percent last weekend — just short of the 60 percent needed to clinch the nomination.
Romney also appears unlikely to write off conventions.
Participating in the events is “showing respect for the establishment of our political party and Utah and the convention and caucus process and grass-roots activists,” Romney said Monday on KSL Radio’s Doug Wright show.