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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Big caucus turnout may change Utah politics a bit

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Members of precinct 41 record election results as a Democratic caucus is held at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 13, 2012. At front left is Angelina Tsu, the new chair of the precinct. Utah Democrats are gathering to select delegates for state and county party conventions.

Revell Call, Deseret News) MAGS OUT NO SALES, Associated Press

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Participation in recent party precinct caucuses was enormous, with interesting ramifications for politics in Utah. Our analysis:

Did Sen. Orrin Hatch win the caucuses and is his re-election secure?

Pignanelli: "Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result." — Oscar Wilde. For two years, seasoned politicos — especially in Washington — smugly predicted Hatch's demise ("Dead Man walking" is one description from a famous political operative). Sensing his downfall, many Utah GOP officials (including the governor and congressional delegation) refused to endorse the senior senator.

All accounts indicate Hatch supporters dominated the precinct caucuses. These results are shifting the trajectory of Utah's elections, with Hatch entering the state convention in a very strong position. (He still faces credible opposition from former lawmakers Dan Liljenquist and Chris Herrod.)

Several factors are responsible for this incredible change. The priority of the bipartisan push by the LDS Church and business/community organizations to increase attendance at the caucuses was to establish a reasonable approach toward important issues (i.e. immigration, education, etc). Of course, the senator benefited from this massive infusion of voters — many with fond memories of the conservative warrior — who wrested control from the anti-Hatch right-wing activists. In fact, only 20 percent of the delegates elected in 2010 were returned this year — a major factor.

Yet, Hatch himself is the fundamental element for the success. He built a team of campaign experts who ran a perfect delegate operation for 18 months. Through meticulous research, they knew which precinct caucuses to target. Also, they deflected attacks from the ultraconservative FreedomWorks PAC by painting those activists as anti-Utah outsiders. Further, Hatch secured the endorsement of Mitt Romney, which played well with caucus attendees.

An interesting dynamic has developed: all the GOP incumbents (including those who withheld endorsements) benefited from Hatch's efforts with delegates. (I recommend repeated use of the Latin Catholic phrase "Mea maxima culpa" when Republicans communicate with Hatch in the future.)

Webb: Hatch did very well at the caucuses. But no guarantees exist in politics, and Hatch should run as scared as ever. Hatch is well-positioned to win enough delegates votes, at the very least, to emerge from the convention and into the primary election. However, he now must maintain or win support among 4,000 state delegates, and his main opponents, Liljenquist and Herrod, are meeting one-on-one and in small groups with those same delegates. If they come across as more persuasive, attractive and competent than Hatch, they could take delegates away from him. Much also depends on the candidates' performance at the convention, where many races have been won or lost. Some delegates are easily swayed, and none of them is legally committed to Hatch. Voting at the convention is by secret ballot.

Did the caucus results lead to Gov. Herbert's decision to veto HB363?

Webb: No. Herbert did what he thought was right. But the big caucus turnout and more moderate tone of those attending certainly made the veto easier.

Pignanelli: The veto by Herbert was a gutsy move. But exercising leadership and political shrewdness are not exclusive endeavors. Herbert's staffers needed a read on the caucuses to develop the veto strategy.

Will the caucus turnout result in a more moderate tone in Utah politics for the foreseeable future?

Pignanelli: No. Republican and Democratic officeholders understand that the moderate flavor of the caucus is a direct result of the mammoth push to increase attendance. Such expenditure of effort will not be repeated in future election cycles.

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