SALT LAKE CITY — A small group of well-connected Republicans, including a former governor, have quietly met to discuss ways outside Utah's political convention system to get candidates on the primary election ballot.
"This is quite exploratory right now," said Rich McKeown, former chief of staff to Gov. Mike Leavitt. "We have looked at various vehicles that don't tamper with the caucus system, but create alternatives to (get on) the ballot."
Those kicking around ideas are McKeown, Leavitt, Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers and political consultant, lobbyist and Deseret News columnist LaVarr Webb. The group may propose whatever it comes up with as a ballot initiative for voters to decide, which likely puts any changes out of reach for the 2012 election cycle.
The group wasn't planning to publicly talk about their ideas yet, but felt compelled to do so after a GOP operative sent a letter to legislative leaders, the media and University of Utah regents and trustees criticizing Jowers over a political donation and discouraged other donations. Political insiders say the letter was meant as a warning to Jowers and his group to stop attempts to change the system. The group's ideas have enraged some Utah conservatives.
Peter Valcarce, owner of a multimillion-dollar national Republican direct mailing business, was upset that $75,000 of an anonymous $200,000 donation he made to the Hinckley Institute was put into a scholarship fund in Jowers' name. Valcarce, however, denied the letter was politically motivated.
Any notion of changing the grass-roots candidate selection process doesn't sit well with conservatives and tea party members who successfully ousted Sen. Bob Bennett at last year's state GOP convention.
"They're trying to get incumbents to stay put," said Steve Kirkham, an Orem tea partier. "The last thing the leaders want is the people deciding who the next leaders are going to be."
Under the current system, Republicans and Democrats statewide go to neighborhood caucus meeting every two years to choose delegates. Those delegates then pick candidates for offices including governor and Congress to appear on the ballot. Candidates who receive at least 60 percent of the delegate vote become the nominees. If no one reaches that threshold, the top two vote-getters square off in a primary election.
Leavitt and company want to provide another path for getting names on the ballot. One of their proposals would allow candidates who gather a certain number of voter signatures a place in the primary.
"The basis would be creating a system where every vote would be counted," McKeown said. "In the current system, if you don't show up to caucus, your vote may not count."
Low voter turnout in Utah is a driving force behind the group's discussions, McKeown said. Only about 33 percent of eligible Utahns voted in the 2010 election, among the lowest in the nation. The group wants to determine whether the caucus system plays into that, he said.
Kirkham doesn't buy that at all. He said he believes Bennett's ouster is "absolutely" the motivation for wanting to change the system.
"The caucus system is about as open as it gets," he said. "How tough is it to get a candidate on the primary ballot now? What they want is to get other candidates off the ballot."
McKeown said he doesn't know whether the group has the time, ability or interest to ultimately advance a proposal.
"Are we going to do anything? We don't know. Do we know precisely what we would do? No," he said. "We have to find out something pretty quick if we're going to do it."
State Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said he applauds any group brainstorming ways to bring more participation to the democratic process. But tweaking the system now isn't the answer.
"This meeting (of the Leavitt group) is the Hail Mary into the end zone," he said.
Republicans and Democrats should be focused for the next six months on getting people to their neighborhood meetings in March, he said.
"I think the system works," Wright said. "I think it keeps politics close to the people. I think it allows for accountability of elected officials."