Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A flicker of the smoldering battle within Utah's Republican Party over the candidate-nominating process that has empowered the party's upstart tea party faction showed itself on the floor of the House.
Tea party Republican Rep. John Dougall, of American Fork, urged lawmakers to back a bill that would eliminate the tax return check-off for the Election Campaign Fund, which he called a "direct subsidy" to private, nonprofit political parties.
But Dougall also revealed an underlying motive for the change, arguing that his proposal could also hold off calls to reform Utah's caucus nominating system and threaten the power of tea party Republicans.
At those neighborhood precinct meetings, party members choose state and county delegates to attend the conventions and nominate the parties' candidates for local, legislative, statewide and congressional offices. If a candidate doesn't get at least 60 percent of the convention vote, the two top vote-getters face off in a primary. Only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary, while the Democrat primary is open to all voters.
But is the caucus/convention nominating system, which Democrats employ as well, really under any threat of change?
"I don't see a serious move to do that right now," said House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo.
Self-described old-guard Republican LaVarr Webb agrees that any caucus reform effort would not happen until at least 2014, meaning any changes wouldn't go into effect until 2016.
"There's still very strong support for it," he said.
Webb, a political consultant and the publisher of utahpolicy.com, said that because neither the party nor the Legislature has any interest in changing the caucus system, he and other moderate Republicans hope to launch a statewide ballot initiative to appeal directly to voters.
But since there's no time to gather the nearly 100,000 required signatures by the April 15 deadline to qualify a ballot initiative, it won't happen until 2014, he said.
Although, delegates in the state convention could vote to change the system as well, Webb noted.
That initiative would seek to add an alternative track for candidates to get on the primary ballot, he said, by gathering a requisite number of signatures to bypass the caucus/convention nominating system, which would still be left intact.
But state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright criticized that proposal saying he's not even sure such a dual-track nominating system would pass legal muster.
"I think our caucus system works fine," he said.
Democrats don't face a similar threat to the nominating system, so they are somewhat ambivalent about making changes to the candidate selection process, state party chairman Jim Dabakis said.
The nationwide "Occupy" movement, known for its campaign of highly visible public protests and would be the closest parallel to the tea party for Democrats, has no Democratic representatives in the Legislature, Dubakis said, and no Democratic candidates running for office in Utah.
On the other hand, there are at least 15 to 20 "very tea party people" among Republican legislators, he said, and some of those are now seeking the party's nomination to run for Congress.
Still, Democrats may consider a direct election primary, Dubakis added.
"I think that's something the Democratic Party should and will look at in this next year."
Every Democratic House member opposed Dougall's bill, HB50, to do away with the tax return check-off, Dabakis said. The bill passed the House 51-20 and is now before the Senate Rules Committee.
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