Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is tea party influence waning or growing in Utah's elections?

Published: Sunday, July 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

We're in the summer doldrums, but there is plenty of political intrigue to keep political junkies abundantly titillated.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, a Tea Party darling, has made it abundantly clear he's running for a congressional seat, even though he doesn't know which one. Is he already the frontrunner?

Pignanelli: "Nothing can so alienate a voter from the political system as backing a winning candidate." — Mark B. Cohen. Almost daily, a politically engaged moderate Republican (usually from Salt Lake City) or Democrat will inquire of me as to whether "that crazy Wimmer guy" is going to run and can he win? My standard response always causes jaws to drop. Love him or hate him — Wimmer is a force in Utah politics. He was on the cutting-edge of the states' rights national effort as a charter founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus. He is a favorite among tea party activists and the uber right-wing organizations. The gregarious Wimmer is not a grumpy conservative (i.e. Newt Gingrich) but more of the happy warrior (i.e. Jack Kemp). He understands and uses the new media, a huge benefit in 21st-century politics.

Most importantly, Wimmer is a shrewd political operative and is playing to the GOP delegates (similar to Jason Chaffetz in 2008). Of course, Wimmer could face a challenge in the new district from well-respected heavyweights Sen. Steve Urquhart and Rep. David Clark. Every day, some politicos laugh at Wimmer; and he will laugh with them — all the way to his swearing-in.

Webb: It's hard to anoint a frontrunner without seeing the new district boundaries. Wimmer could conceivably end up in the same district as Chaffetz, though that's unlikely. But as the only announced candidate, the only candidate who's been lining up support and working hard for many months on the race, Wimmer is well ahead of everyone else. Any open congressional seat (including the 3rd District if Chaffetz runs for the Senate) will attract a big crowd, so Wimmer will have plenty of competition. But it takes an immense amount of grassroots work to be successful in these races, and those who dither and dally will be left behind. The March caucuses are only a little more than nine months away. Wimmer was smart to get out early, and no one should underestimate him.

A big question is whether, given the current political environment, a more mainstream Utah Republican has any chance of winning a Republican nomination for major office in this state, or whether upcoming nomination battles are going to be far-right-only affairs. Given the results of recent county and state conventions, I see little hope for a mainstream, pragmatic, problem-solving candidate — unless mainstream people turn out in big numbers at the March caucuses.

Should Utahns be pleased or resentful that outside special interest groups, like Club for Growth and Americaworks, are inserting themselves this early into the U.S. Senate race by attacking Sen. Orrin Hatch?

Webb: I am always resentful when outside interest groups with their hardcore negative campaign messages attempt to determine the outcome of a Utah political contest. But they helped defeat Sen. Bob Bennett, so they're at it again. Their messages resonate well with the far right, and thus have an impact on the all-important state delegates.

Pignanelli: Utah possesses several unique dynamics attractive to these organizations. Our legislative session is among the first in the country to commence and adjourn. Also, our delegate selection and convention process is early in comparison to the rest of the country. Even better, television and print media is cheap. Therefore, with little expense, well-funded national organizations can influence our legislative and nomination process. Then they use their success in Utah as a springboard in other states.

Whether right or left of center, these groups view Utah as a bargain battleground to promote their cause in other states. A real concern for the Beehive state is not a priority. This will not change, but Utahns should understand why we receive this attention when developing their opinions.

A survey indicated that Tea Party influence is waning in Utah, at least among independent voters. Is this true?

Pignanelli: National and local surveys indicate that voter regard for the tea party is dropping. But this is a moot point in Utah. Tea party activists and other ultra conservatives can control the 2012 elections if they dominate the precinct caucuses next March 2012 — as they did in 2010.

Webb: Where it really matters (the nomination of Republican candidates), the tea party is as strong as ever and probably getting stronger. It's looking more likely that the outcome of the debt-limit negotiations in Washington could dramatically increase the divide between pragmatic, mainstream Republicans, and ideological, far-right Republicans. If Republicans don't get enormous budget cuts out of these negotiations, the passions of the far-right will be further inflamed and they'll take it out on party moderates. Meanwhile, as Republicans are engaged in vicious civil wars and circular firing squads, Democrats will be building coalitions that can win general elections.

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.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS