A battle is raging nationally and in Utah for the soul of the Republican Party. With the imminent departure of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to China, Utah has lost a strong moderate Republican voice. That raises some interesting questions:
With Huntsman gone, will the Utah Republican Party tilt sharply to the right, and are there any strong moderate leaders who can continue the Huntsman tradition?
Webb: A little tilt to the right would be OK. Utahns favor solid, pragmatic, responsible conservatism. Far more Utahns label themselves conservative as liberal, and most residents want limited government and maximum freedom. But Utah is not a far-right state. Those espousing angry, harsh, reactionary, government-hating, right-wing social conservatism are a small, but vocal, minority. If the Utah GOP reverts to that strident form of arch-conservatism it will be in big trouble, even in Utah.
Utah has lost its main moderate voice, but Governor-to-be Gary Herbert is smart enough to know that most Utahns don't want a right-wing governor. He will be more conservative than Huntsman, and that's OK, but incumbency will absolutely have a moderating influence on him. In my 35-plus years of watching Utah politics, the state has always had centrist, practical, problem-solving, mainstream (and generally popular) governors from both parties. That's the sort of governor Utahns want. Herbert can be a responsible conservative, and still govern in the centrist tradition of Utah's excellent governors. He would be foolish not to. If he turns out to be a conservative ideologue, he might not last past 2010. But my guess is that those expecting Herbert to champion right-wing causes will be disappointed.
Pignanelli: "I smell a rat in Philadelphia." — Patrick Henry (declining participation at the Constitutional Convention). Many are amused that the recently organized ultraconservative Patrick Henry Caucus — dedicated to strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution — should honor someone who hated the document and toiled against ratification. However, the caucus is a shrewd response by Republican lawmakers to harness the "tea party" movement of Americans frustrated with national Democrats and Republicans. They clearly understand this anti-Washington emotion is a source of interparty opposition to Sen. Bob Bennett.
In reaction to an expanding federal government, a states-rights free-market libertarian philosophy has potential to draw the mainstream populace. But if the message is laced with angry screams flavored with taunts of anti-immigration and intolerance, the impact is limited. With Huntsman, this "New Republican" movement had a fresh approach reflective of 21st-century demographics. Without Huntsman's influence, moderate Republicans may scurry for cover. Thus, right-wing delegates will dominate future Republican conventions and control candidate selection. Conventional Utah Republicans will become extremists in order to win the nomination.
If the Utah GOP shifts to the right, is the party in danger of losing more ground in Salt Lake County?
Pignanelli: Nearly one-half of Utahns live in Salt Lake County — and they are predominantly swing voters. Consequently, Utah Republicans have a serious choice ahead of them. If the likes of George Will and Colin Powell become the face of the party, they could recapture a majority. Conversely, a GOP expounding intolerant right wing rhetoric, with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh maintaining de facto leadership, will suffer losses.
Webb: This is a dangerous time for Utah Republicans. If arch-conservative ideologues take control, we'll see the party lose some statewide races, something unthinkable not long ago. The trends favoring Democrats will spread beyond the borders of Salt Lake County. If Congressman Jim Matheson runs for governor, a whole lot of arch-conservative Republicans are going to be in for the shock of their lives as they see how strong he is statewide. The limits of far-right conservatism will soon be apparent.
Is the Huntsman departure a blessing or a curse for Utah Democrats?
Webb: Democrats lost a friend, but they suddenly have a real shot at the governorship, if they nominate the right candidate. (I suggest Frank.) Thankfully, the Utah GOP has too many smart, centrist, practical leaders, both in politics and in the business community, to allow the far right to hijack the party.
Pignanelli: Republican partisans were often angry with Huntsman's embrace of Democrats. Yet, the openness was smart strategy because the minority party rarely criticized the governor. Thus, it was harder for Democrats to construct an alternative in the minds of voters. Depending on how Herbert steers his administration, Democrats could benefit by providing a sharp contrast.
LG/COS watch: Capitol Hill is abuzz with additional contenders for Herbert's lieutenant governor. State Sen. Steve Urquhart is known for a deep knowledge of high technology and appeals to conservatives. Former representative Stuart Adams, is well-liked in Davis County and maintains statewide support from his activities as transportation commissioner. Many politicos believe Chris Bleak, chief of staff to Speaker Dave Clark, would be a great chief of staff for Herbert. Economic development director Jason Perry and governor's general counsel Tani Pack Downing are also on the shortlist for that spot.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.