Republican Party leaders across the state are cranking down their candidate nominating processes, aiming to avoid fractional primaries and save campaign money.
But it's a move that some, including Democrats, say is dangerous. Utah is such a one-party state, Democrats say, that in many races - maybe even most races - the Republican primary is the only place where voters-at-large can cast a ballot that matters.With fewer GOP primaries - the Republican nominee being picked in a county or state convention - voters get no real choice. They will end up with the Republican nominee who appears on the November ballot, since there either is no Democratic candidate at all or the Democrat has no real chance to win in the general election.
In their April conventions, Utah County Republicans are lowering their nomination percentage from 70 percent to 60 percent; Salt Lake County Republicans are lowering their nomination threshold from 70 percent to 65 percent. In addition, both counties will be using a multiple ballot in their conventions, which will whittle a whole field of candidates down to just two, and then take one final vote to see if one can get either the 60 or 65 percent of the vote needed for nomination.
Two weeks ago, state Republican leaders decided that for multi-county legislative districts, the lowest nominating ratio adopted by a county GOP central committee within the district would be used. For example, in Sen. Howard Stephenson's District 4, which straddles Salt Lake and Utah counties, the 60 percent level adopted by Utah County Republicans will be used in picking between Stephenson and the two Republicans challenging him.
For statewide offices, like U.S. senator and representative, the 70 percent nomination level will be used, said Spencer Stokes, GOP state executive director.
Lowering the delegate vote percentage that a candidate needs to win a nomination means it's more likely that in a county or state convention, one of the GOP candidates for a specific office will win outright. And that means no primary election for Republicans in that race.
Since Utah has an open primary system - where a registered voter can choose to vote for a candidate in any party - that means less of a Democratic process across the board, says Todd Taylor, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Ironically, Democrats have lowered their nomination process statewide and in many counties to 60 percent. But Taylor says political reality draws a distinctive bright line of difference.
"In only one county in the state could a Democratic primary really be the final election - where a Republican (candidate) doesn't have a chance. And that's in Carbon County. And the Carbon County Democrats have an 80 percent (candidate nomination) level in their county convention - so we usually have (Democratic) primaries" in that Democratic-dominated, coal-mining county, says Taylor.
But in most Utah counties, and certainly statewide, Republicans are the majority party. And cranking down on the number of GOP primaries in those counties and in statewide races only limits Utahns' voting choices, Taylor says. And even though Democrats had a 60 percent rule in their 1996 state convention, they still couldn't pick between Kelly Atkinson and Ross Anderson in the 2nd Congressional District. The following divisive primary may have sunk any chance Anderson, the eventual nominee, had in the final election.
"I have no alibi," no apology for lowering the nomination percentage from 70 percent 60 percent, says Utah County GOP chairman Rod Fudge.
"Primaries for Republicans are costly and divisive," he says. And he's right.
In 1990, an expensive and especially nasty GOP primary race between John Harmer and Karl Snow left such a bad taste in the mouths of 3rd Congressional District voters that they picked Democratic newcomer Bill Orton in the final election, despite the fact the district is overwhelmingly Republican.
In 1992, a Republican U.S. Senate primary contest between Joe Cannon and Bob Bennett - two millionaires - cost more than $5 million.
Cranking down the convention nomination process is a way to get around the unpopular alternative of voter party registration and closed primary elections, admits Stokes.
In 1995, the Utah Legislature, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, deregulated political parties. In the process, legislators, anticipating that some parties may want closed primaries, mandated that in the 1996 general balloting voters pick a political party to belong to.
But in the 1996 Legislature, before the 1996 general election, Lt. Gov. Olene Walker, the state elections officer, convinced lawmakers that the state's closed primary system couldn't function - too difficult and costly for the county clerks who have to run elections.
So the option of a closed primary was abandoned by the 1996 Legislature, and Utahns never had to pick a political party to officially belong to. No closed primary, and independent voters or those of another party could invade the open primary ballot and pick candidates for opposition parties - a re-occurring nightmare for some GOP leaders.
That actually happened in 1990. That year, exit polls showed, most voters who said they were Republicans cast ballots for Dan Marriott in the 2nd Congressional District GOP primary. But Republican newcomer Genevieve Atwood actually won the primary, because Democrats and independents chose to vote on the GOP side and picked her.
Republicans should pick Republicans, says Stokes. And lowering the convention nomination threshold ensures that that is exactly what will happen.
"It improves the process, not harms it," says Fudge. "Anyone knows that if you can get 60 percent of the vote (delegate or primary election), that is a landslide. Get 60 percent of the vote (in the Utah County GOP convention), and you've picked the best Republican, the one that shares our (party) values," he adds.
"I don't respect their rationale," says Taylor. "In many races, the GOP primary is the final election, and every Utahn should have a chance to vote" to pick the candidate that will be the ultimate winner.