Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Who owns the soul of the Utah Republican Party?

Published: Sunday, April 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A battle is underway between mainstream conservatives and far-right conservatives for the heart and soul of the Utah Republican Party. Who's winning?

Webb: As a mainstream conservative, I agree with far-right conservatives that we need limited government and low taxes. Most of our ultimate goals are similar. But I differ in tone and approach.

Clearly, the Tea Party, Eagle Forum, Patrick Henry Caucus, and 912 groups have been highly visible and influential and have successfully framed the issues. Republican leaders pay attention to them, even fear them.

But the far right and their brand of conservatism doesn't represent the majority of Republicans, and they must not be allowed to control the Republican Party. And I'm sensing that the pendulum is swinging back toward traditional, mainstream Utah conservatism.

It isn't right-wing conservatism that built this state into what it is. Mainstream conservative legislators, governors, and city and county leaders, along with active business and non-profit communities, have balanced budgets and kept government from growing too much, while also investing in infrastructure, public education, higher education, and a safety net for those who need it.

Mainstream conservatism is practical, problem-solving, get-it-done conservatism. It isn't overly divisive, or aggressively ideological, and it doesn't use litmus tests that alienate anyone not 100% "pure."

Mainstream conservatism champions robust but civil debate and discourse. It recognizes that the other side sometimes has some good points, that finding common ground isn't surrender, and that getting 70% of what you want in politics is usually pretty darn good.

It's the kind of leadership provided by some great governors: Gary Herbert, Jon Huntsman, Olene Walker, Mike Leavitt, Norm Bangerter and, yes, even Scott Matheson and Cal Rampton.

It's a brand of conservatism that works, that balances the need for low taxes and limited government with the legitimate tasks of government.

It's the kind of practical conservatism that has made Utah, as Ronald Reagan might describe it, "a shining city on a hill," a place where government works and problems get solved.

This is the kind of conservatism that should define the Utah Republican Party, and it's time for mainstream conservatives, backed by the intellectual firepower of groups like the Sutherland Institute, to take back their party.

Pignanelli: "There are few things more amusing than watching moderate Republicans charging to the right in pursuit of greater glory." — Governor Mario Cuomo (D-NY)

I am surprised to learn that some politicos still wonder who controls the Utah GOP. The answer was delivered in May 2010 when popular incumbent Bob Bennett was thoroughly decimated at his convention by ultraconservatives.

Since then, almost every Republican office holder, regardless of mainstream belief, has boasted of their deep conservative credentials. Currently, GOP candidates for president and state office must appease Tea Party and other extreme elements. With the exception of Ambassador Jon Huntsman, no high profile Republican officials are proclaiming their "moderation."

The final struggle for the soul of the Utah GOP will be immigration. In the recent legislative session, courageous lawmakers with bona fide conservative credentials (Sen. Curt Bramble and Rep. Bill Wright) crafted an alternative to the Arizona act. Their legislation respects the rule of law, allows compassion and provides Utah business with hard workers.

Though probably unconstitutional, their effort garnered respect nationwide. Yet, the far right promised retribution for their efforts — a real threat because of the delegate system.

Mainstream Republicans can no longer just grumble with each other at luncheons. Business, ecumenical and community leaders, who identify themselves as Republicans, most openly and aggressively support the pragmatic conservatives who delivered a worthy immigration answer.

Without this confrontation, the far right will solidify their control — for decades.

What are the prospects for changing Utah's caucus/convention system so the candidate nominating process is more reflective of mainstream values?

Pignanelli: When a headline in this newspaper announces the end of Utah's delegate system, another headline will reveal the discovery of flying pigs.

There are three options for change, each more difficult than the one before.

First, party delegates could modify at any time. But this would require thousands of delegate contenders (Democrat and Republican) stating the following at the precinct caucuses: "Almost everyone here is a wingnut with a narrow agenda. If elected delegate, I will support actions to eliminate our power at the convention." (Good luck with that.)

Second, legislative leaders could mandate a primary, but only with commitments from two thirds of each body to prevent a referendum. This is impossible because many lawmakers view the delegate system as an efficient means of avoiding a primary (they know how to contain the crazy delegates in their district).

Third, a referendum process is possible, but it is expensive and unlikely to be funded. Winged bacon will not be on a menu soon.

Webb: Clearly, raw political power in Utah is manifest most fundamentally at precinct caucuses and conventions. Control caucuses and conventions, and you control politics in Utah.

Thus, the task is pretty simple. Mainstream Republicans need to turn out in large numbers at precinct caucuses at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 27, 2012, and mainstream Republicans will be back in charge. Put it on your calendar.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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