SALT LAKE CITY — There's still a push for Utah to play a bigger role in the 2016 presidential primary race, even though a bill to make the state's election the first in the nation stalled in the Legislature.
"By going first, I believe that Utah could finally show what all of us already know, that the emperors — Iowa and New Hampshire — have no clothes," said Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, the sponsor of HB410.
The bill, which passed the House but failed to get a vote in the Senate before the session ended, would have put an online Utah election ahead of Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary, traditionally the initial contests for White House contenders.
Cox said no state should always be first in line, but until the national parties put an end to the practice, it will take a state like Utah going rogue to "finally allow us to discuss meaningful reform in the presidential nominating process."
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state elections, said he backed the proposal.
"The political scientist in me thinks it's a fascinating idea," the lieutenant governor said, describing the bill as an attempt "to point out we do have a broken system and the absurdity of the system. This is one attempt to blow the system up."
But the Senate co-sponsor of HB410, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said testing the state's ability to hold an online election is more important than trying to be the first primary in 2016.
"I think that ended up being a distraction," Bramble said.
He said he plans to work on the online voting portion of the bill over the legislative interim to help ensure support in the 2015 session.
"In a presidential primary, it's hard to argue Utah is pivotal. The decisions are made elsewhere. That's why we're called a flyover state," Bramble said, saying Utah is seen as lacking influence because it is dominated by the GOP.
That status is the reason supporters of moving the primary date are calling for the change. A prominent primary, they say, will elevate the standing of states like Utah viewed by presidential candidates as not worth a campaign stop.
Lt. Gov. Cox said that results in Utahns not being able to see "the parts of our heritage that are important" impact national elections, while a relatively small group of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have a disproportionate influence.
Under the current law in Utah, the state can choose to be part of a Western regional primary, usually held in February of a presidential election year, or add the presidential race to the June primary ballot.
In 2008, Utah participated in the Western states primary, and in 2012, the state was the last in the nation to vote in the presidential race because a separate presidential primary was not held.
Presidential candidates in those years, including favorite son Mitt Romney, focused on raising money in Utah rather than appealing directly to the state's voters through advertising or personal appearances.
"Having the first in the nation primary, it's a prime piece of real estate to be sure," University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said, so much so that New Hampshire has a law mandating it will keep that spot, he added.
"We're willing to play that game of leapfrog if other states want to," Scala said, noting that Utah is far from the first state to take a look at knocking New Hampshire out of first place. "This is our franchise, and we want to protect it."
Scala questioned the impact an online election would have.
"Part of the charm of New Hampshire and Iowa is the ritual and the pageantry," he said, that would be lacking in an online election, along with the "lingering doubts" there would be about its validity.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats in Utah have much interest in seeing the state challenge New Hampshire's top spot.
"It's like playing chicken," Utah's Republican National Committeeman Bruce Hough said. There should be a good reason for moving an election, he said, "not because our feelings get hurt because we're not being noticed."
Hough said the Republican National Committee decided earlier this year to move up the 2016 nominating convention from August or September to as early as June, and shortened the primary election calendar from six months to as little as three months.
Now, only Iowa and New Hampshire, along with the other early voting states of South Carolina and Nevada, will be allowed to hold elections before March 1 without being penalized by the national GOP with a loss of delegates.
Utah Republicans are working with their counterparts in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to put together a regional primary that would be held between March 15 and April 1, Hough said.
Matt Lyon, executive director of Utah's Democratic Party, said there's no interest in bucking the Democratic National Party for an early primary and losing delegates.
"We just wouldn't fight that fight," Lyon said.
No matter when the primary ends up being held, Utah will have influence on the presidential election through Gov. Gary Herbert, who shortly will become vice chairman and then chairman of the National Governors Association.
"There is a role for Utah to play," the governor said in a recent interview. "I'm a believer the next president ought to be a governor, somebody who's actually had to do something."
The governor said there's no shortage of good candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, once seen as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination but now mired in a bridge-closing scandal.
"Chris Christie is running into a little bit of a stumbling block," said Herbert, who had Christie speak at a fundraiser in Utah during his 2012 re-election. "I think it's being magnified more than it probably really is. That's part of the political game."
Also mentioned as strong candidates by Herbert were Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Herbert was set to join Christie and other 2016 GOP hopefuls at a Republican Governors Association gathering in Park City on Sunday, described by Politico as a fundraising retreat.
But Utah's governor said he's not eyeing the White House.
"We do have people that say, 'You know, we like what we see in Utah. Could you translate that to Washington, D.C.?' I have no ambition to run for president," Herbert said. "I'm a realist."
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