Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The tea party is here to stay in Utah's political races

Published: Sunday, May 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In the recent Senate District 28 special election in Southern Utah, seasoned Republican leaders were passed over by voting delegates in favor of a 25-year-old tea party candidate. What's going on here?

Pignanelli: "In politics, being ridiculous is more damaging than being extreme." — Roy Hattersley There was more than precipitation in the air at the Utah State Capitol at Interim Committees last week — the aroma of anxiety was all over the place. For the second time in two months, GOP delegates disregarded the more experienced mainstream Republicans to fill a vacancy. The results from the election to replace Sen. Dennis Stowell were especially dumbfounding. Stowell's widow, Marilee A. Stowell, wanted the seat. There is deep precedence for Republican and Democratic delegates to select a surviving spouse in order to carry on the legacy of a beloved legislator. The quick dismissal of this tradition raised eyebrows.

But what is especially troubling for GOP insiders is the treatment of Rep. Evan Vickers — the current representative from Cedar City who also sought to replace Stowell. If one went to central casting in search of the perfect state senator, the agents would immediately produce Vickers. A successful small-business man (the town pharmacist), popular church and community leader, intelligent, quick-witted and a low-handicap golfer, Vickers was the favorite among political observers. Further, Vickers has strong conservative credentials and articulated an early heartfelt apology for the HB477 debacle. Thus, a Vickers profile was reasonably expected to satisfy the extreme right-wing elements.

Yet 63 percent of the delegates selected Casey Anderson, the choice of some local tea party activists. Several of these delegates expressed anger at the establishment and state government. Something is stirring in the darker corners of the Utah Republican Party, which is spooking the sturdiest of incumbents.

Webb: Anderson's election to the Utah Senate demonstrates the conservative nature of the delegates in District 28, but one special election does not a trend make. After all, a few weeks earlier Aaron Osmond, who wasn't endorsed by tea party groups, was selected to replace former arch-conservative Sen. Chris Buttars. Besides being very conservative, I assume Anderson impressed delegates with his leadership, charisma and vision.

What is certain is that far-right tea party candidates and advocates are going to be active in every political contest and every political issue. To their credit, they are passionate, hard-working and vocal. They don't represent the majority of Utahns, or even the majority of mainstream Republicans, but passion and hard work produce a potent political force. A small group that shows up will always beat a large group that stays home.

Mitt Romney's health-care reform in Massachusetts has been dogging him in the presidential race. He tried to address the issue and put it behind him in a major speech. How'd he do?

Webb: Romney's speech definitely helped. He got beat up by the news media for a few news cycles after the speech, but that's to be expected. It's always better to address a vexing issue head-on, rather than let it fester. He hasn't put the matter entirely behind him, but news media and many Republican voters will eventually move on. He was right to frame it as a states' rights issue, one of the laboratories of democracy crafting a solution fitting that state. That's obviously vastly different than Obamacare. This issue will continue to be a problem for Romney, but he was right to directly address it.

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