In 2010, Utah Republican delegates cheered after voting then-Sen. Bob Bennett off the ballot and out of office. When talking to television cameras after the delegates’ vote, Bennett wept. And many Utahns are still very angry.
The juxtaposition of emotion demonstrated on that day in May 2010 set the stage for the current 3rd Congressional District Republican primary election. And not in a good way. Political insiders have described the 3rd District race as the ugliest they’ve seen in years.
But they shouldn’t be so surprised.
The effort to reform Utah’s election system after Bennett’s loss, known as the “Count My Vote” legislation, or SB54, forced the party to change its nominating procedures so that candidates could seek the party’s nomination outside of convention procedures. Why? Because Utah’s unique caucus/convention system tended to favor principled candidates holding views that were too “extreme” for “mainstream” Utah voters.
If that sounds like a load of codswallop (thank you, dear reader, for this column’s word of the day), it was. And it still is.
The very same Establishment elite who told us we should yield to their wisdom in the name of the “mainstream” are now warning about the “nastiness,” “negativity” and overabundance of “money” that comes with the “rising populism” they see in the 3rd District race. The possibility of Chris Herrod winning is now the result of “the era of Donald Trump and the rise of populism.” Last year the cause of extreme candidates was the caucus/convention system itself. What will it be next year?
It’s almost enough to make a girl think the people behind SB54 are just going to keep demanding rule changes until, dammit, stubborn Utah voters finally learn to vote the “right” way.
I experienced the issues raised by SB54 first-hand when I first ran to be a delegate during the 2010 senate race. My opponent was a well-respected community leader and repeat delegate. He was also Sen. Bennett’s brother. As we gave our speeches, things became contentious. My neighbors attacked me as young and inexperienced. When I tried to answer, one neighbor growled that I was just a “young buck.” Once I got over the shock, I was grateful for the compliment, although “young doe” would have been more gender-appropriate.
I lost my bid for delegate. But the system worked. My neighborhood preferred Sen. Bennett and voted to elect a delegate who would represent their interests. (My neighbors and I are on much better terms.)
I’m not saying things were perfect in the pre-SB54 world. I agree the Republican Party was too slow, and too stubborn, in refusing improvements to the caucus/convention system. But SB54 shifted the emphasis from substance and principles to an emphasis on money. The ugliness we’re now seeing in the 3rd District race is a direct result of SB54, where rich candidates and their super-rich PACs are engaged not in a productive kind of negative campaigning, but in negative campaign photoshopping.
The irony is, I agree with LaVarr Webb that we should be embarrassed if anyone but John Curtis wins this primary election. And in full disclosure, I have openly supported Curtis, and continue to support him. But if SB54 hadn’t interrupted the usual flow of Utah’s political process, this special election would be between Chris Herrod and more-moderate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson – the top two convention candidates. And Henderson would have run away with it. (Hopefully she’ll consider a run against Senator Hatch.)
Even worse, before the plurality allowed by SB54, the winner of the primary had to win a majority of votes by building coalitions and consensus among different factions of the party. That’s why when more conservative candidates left convention with a higher vote tally, more moderate candidates won the primary. We saw this in last year’s battle between Gov. Gary Herbert and Jonathan Johnson.
Now, candidates just have to run faster than the two behind him. Or dig dirtier. To win a plurality, a candidate merely needs to mobilize and motivate his base faction, while using the factional struggle to tear down other candidates. Exhibit A: Herrod and Ainge both attacking Curtis, relentlessly.
It’s no surprise that two of the candidates have sunk into silly season – the new formula requires it. This isn’t better politics, and it isn’t better policy.
In a recent conversation, one of SB54′s sponsors, Utah Rep. Dan McCay, acknowledged he was concerned about how SB54 would change the election process. In his view, though, “It is way too early to address whether SB54 is producing positive results. Only time will tell.”
Indeed, internal campaign polls show a tight race between Curtis, Herrod and Ainge, although Curtis remains in the lead. No doubt the results will affect everyone’s views on SB54.
Michelle Quist Mumford is an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune and is considered mainstream in some circles, extreme in others, and just plain tired at home.