Opinion: I warned Utah about our nominating system 10 years ago. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

It has spiraled down into little more than a platform for the political malcontented to rage and roar against the moderate Republican establishment.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox gets a mixed reaction at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 27, 2024.

While it might be understandable that Gov. Spencer Cox recently expressed his desire to maintain the caucus-convention pathway to Republican nominations, those of us who have gone around and around on this issue know that what the caucus-convention pathway is producing in no way benefits Utah.

What went on at the recent Utah Republican Party convention was shameful and an embarrassment. Yet, none of the ill-mannered behavior should have been unexpected. It is, undoubtedly, a direct result of the passage of SB54 during Utah’s 2014 legislative general session. The chickens are now simply coming home to roost.

I was one of only seven Utah state senators in 2014 who voted against SB54 and warned at that time: “The two factions through their candidates will rage and roar at each other, one declaring it represents ‘the people’ and the other declaring it represents ‘true Republicans.’”

I was convinced then and I remain convinced today that SB54 would do nothing to ameliorate the more extreme elements of the Utah Republican Party as it proposed to do. I was persuaded that, with the segregation of signature-gatherers from caucus-convention goers, resulting from SB54, the moderating influence on the growing populist far-right within the Republican Party would be lost forever.

Frankly, it was completely predictable the segregated factions would further clash with each other. The moderate Republican establishment pushing for SB54 sent a message to the populist far-right that they were less than and had to be checked — to be put in their place.

Should anyone be surprised when moderate governors and other moderate office seekers and holders get yelled at and voted against at the Republican convention? The moderate Republican establishment deployed its full force to render the populists far-right ineffectual by trying to isolate it, and all it accomplished was to further intensify resentments.

The establishment had three choices: 1. Fully embrace the populist far-right with an objective to influence it through actually working the caucus-convention system; 2. Kill the caucus-convention system all together through the proposed ballot initiative in 2014 that would have done away with the caucus/convention system in favor of a direct primary; or 3. Keep the caucus-convention system with a signature-gathering work around through SB54 as a compromise to save the caucus/convention path, intended to segregate and thereby check the influence of the growing populist far-right.

The establishment, ultimately seeking compromise by preserving the caucus-convention system, chose the worst of the three alternatives and now all of Utah has to live with regular Republican intra-party exhibitions of extreme polarization in Utah.

The moderate Republican establishment decided it was beneath it and an expense of too much effort to aggressively work the caucus-convention system to unite the party. And so then, the intensifying rage demonstrated from 2014 to the recent Republican convention is nothing less than a response to the establishment’s demonstrated elitism.

And frankly, the way Gov. Cox patronized the angry convention crowd did not help the situation. He only confirmed the establishment thinks it is better than the populist far-right — making certain the conflict and contention continues — spreading a spirit of scorn and continual contention throughout Utah.

In an effort to retract that spreading scorn and continual contention, I believe the Utah State Senate would pass legislation to end both the caucus-convention and signature-gathering paths for a single direct path to qualify for party primaries. The House, on the other hand, will be reluctant to give up the caucus-convention path, which has more sway with house representatives who are up for election every two years.

If there is in fact resistance on the part of the Legislature, there is an alternative option for a public initiative that will propose a direct primary election process — an alternative that would likely be successful. Nevertheless, for right now, both the legislative and public initiative alternatives should earnestly be considered and discussed.

In 2014, as a Utah state senator, I was a determined and outspoken defender of the caucus-convention process. Today, I am convinced it no longer productively serves Utah. Unfortunately, it has spiraled down into little more than a platform for the political malcontented to rage and roar against the moderate Republican establishment and those not obsequious to Donald Trump and his vitriol.

Besides it being a shameful and embarrassing display of discord and disruption, the caucus-convention process is producing nominated candidates hardly acceptable to Republican primary voters, whose interests the party is supposed to represent. While the work-around signature-gathering compromise has indeed ensured the nomination and election of some moderate candidates, it has not in any way moderated the caucus-convention nominations, nor the polarizing hostilities within the Republican Party.

On the contrary, it has enflamed the discontent and discord between the two Republican factions — spilling out of the doors of the caucuses and convention — spreading hate throughout Utah and radicalizing certain elements to revolt.

It is unfortunate that Gov. Cox and too many others cannot discern where all this is heading. Delaying, doing nothing, will not be good for the Republican Party, Utah and especially its rising generations, who inevitably are infected by the conflict and contention spread by their elders.

Stuart Reid

Stuart C. Reid is a former Republican Utah state senator.

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