Utah Republicans and Democrats held their state conventions recently — providing a buffet of intrigue for politicos to chew on. The conventions will have long-term impact on Utah politics.
Did the conventions bury the tea party and extreme political behavior, ushering in an era of mainstream political domination in Utah?
Pignanelli: "A rigged convention is one with the other man's delegates in control. An open convention is when your delegates are in control." — James A. Farley
The conventional wisdom is that the new crop of delegates are temperate and thoughtful in their deliberations (explaining why LaVarr is not a state delegate). While this moderation describes many, there is still a strange angst plaguing Republican delegates.
For example, the media praised Utah leaders for their convention results: Gov. Gary Herbert (63 percent), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (75 percent) and Rep. Rob Bishop (80 percent). Yet, the numbers reveal a significant portion of delegates do not believe these rock-solid Republicans are conservative enough. (I cringe to imagine what a Republican must say or perform to satisfy this quadrant of extremists.)
Webb: The reign of terror of the tea party in Utah was eventful, but short-lived. It's over. Few ideological conservatives with mainstream competition made it through the conventions. So the center-right majority — the dreaded establishment — is back in charge. Republican candidates no longer need to pin a copy of the Constitution across their hearts, or play the game of, "I'm more conservative than you are." They can be practical problem-solvers instead of purist ideologues. That's all good.
But we owe the tea party a hearty thanks for a needed wake-up call about the direction of the country and the need for serious budget and entitlement reform. The tea party movement was a legitimate, spontaneous, bottom-up, angry revolt against big government, high taxes and irresponsible deficit spending. Tea partiers sometimes went too far, but they gave the country a hard yank on the chain, and it's just what we needed.
Did the conventions prove the caucus/convention process is the best system to nominate candidates, or did we witness the political version of the bar scene in "Star Wars?"
Webb: I love the caucus-convention system and always have. But no system is perfect and we need modest reform to engage more voters and protect the integrity of the process. One scary thing about a convention where 4,000 people make final decisions for every voter in the state is that the dynamics, emotion and anger on the convention floor can lead to a last-second herd mentality — clearly demonstrated in the 2nd District GOP race this year.
I love the positive elements of the convention system and don't believe we should toss it out. But modest reform is needed to provide an alternate method for a candidate to get on the primary ballot. The system worked better this year because caucus turnout was enormous. But every election year we won't have Sen. Orrin Hatch spending millions of dollars on grassroots organizing. We may not have the LDS Church cancelling meetings so people can attend. Utah politics is still in danger of being seized by extreme factions unless we institute modest reform.
State Democratic Chair Jim Dabakis plans to convene a commission (he might even invite Frank, although he should select reasonable people) to analyze the nomination process and propose reforms. Republicans should do the same. It will hurt Republicans if the Democrats open their system while Republicans cling to a closed process viewed by many as archaic.
Pignanelli: The results this year especially highlighted the unique dynamics of the convention process. These activities are built for candidates with a stage presence and personal energy. The pre-convention polls clearly documented that there would be a Republican primary for the 4th district and a Democrat primary for the U.S. Senate nomination. Yet, the most charismatic individual in these races swept the delegates off their feet — guaranteeing the nominations for Mia Love and Scott Howell, respectively. Some argue this feature is a disadvantage for the hard-working but "personality challenged" candidate who underwent the hard work prior to the convention. Reality demands the candidate with the most public appeal, regardless of effort, should emerge from the convention.
Further, conventions do not have the luxury of time to resolve intra-party squabbles that erupt at the last minute. GOP activists are still scratching their heads over the 2nd Congressional District contest last Saturday. The heated accusations made by a minor candidate against another pushed the emotional buttons and shifted the momentum in a short amount of time. Primaries offer better deliberation of such matters.
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Were the conventions beneficial or detrimental to party leaders?
Pignanelli: The biggest winners of the conventions were party chairmen Thomas Wright and Dabakis. Against dire predictions of a tough year, Dabakis fostered a great team of candidates and excitement among the faithful. We are still hearing kudos for Wright's tremendous management of the controversies while utilizing a new electronic balloting system. Even I was able to observe Wright's solid convention acumen on my laptop through live streaming (very cool).
Webb: Staging a convention requires the logistical proficiency of mounting a small war. It's an incredibly tough job to manage 4,000 independently elected delegates, some of them intent on making mischief. Except for the 2nd District confusion, both conventions went smoothly and party leaders and volunteers deserve praise.
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: email@example.com.