In the recent Senate District 28 special election in Southern Utah, seasoned Republican leaders were passed over by voting delegates in favor of a 25-year-old tea party candidate. What's going on here?
Pignanelli: "In politics, being ridiculous is more damaging than being extreme." — Roy Hattersley There was more than precipitation in the air at the Utah State Capitol at Interim Committees last week — the aroma of anxiety was all over the place. For the second time in two months, GOP delegates disregarded the more experienced mainstream Republicans to fill a vacancy. The results from the election to replace Sen. Dennis Stowell were especially dumbfounding. Stowell's widow, Marilee A. Stowell, wanted the seat. There is deep precedence for Republican and Democratic delegates to select a surviving spouse in order to carry on the legacy of a beloved legislator. The quick dismissal of this tradition raised eyebrows.
But what is especially troubling for GOP insiders is the treatment of Rep. Evan Vickers — the current representative from Cedar City who also sought to replace Stowell. If one went to central casting in search of the perfect state senator, the agents would immediately produce Vickers. A successful small-business man (the town pharmacist), popular church and community leader, intelligent, quick-witted and a low-handicap golfer, Vickers was the favorite among political observers. Further, Vickers has strong conservative credentials and articulated an early heartfelt apology for the HB477 debacle. Thus, a Vickers profile was reasonably expected to satisfy the extreme right-wing elements.
Yet 63 percent of the delegates selected Casey Anderson, the choice of some local tea party activists. Several of these delegates expressed anger at the establishment and state government. Something is stirring in the darker corners of the Utah Republican Party, which is spooking the sturdiest of incumbents.
Webb: Anderson's election to the Utah Senate demonstrates the conservative nature of the delegates in District 28, but one special election does not a trend make. After all, a few weeks earlier Aaron Osmond, who wasn't endorsed by tea party groups, was selected to replace former arch-conservative Sen. Chris Buttars. Besides being very conservative, I assume Anderson impressed delegates with his leadership, charisma and vision.
What is certain is that far-right tea party candidates and advocates are going to be active in every political contest and every political issue. To their credit, they are passionate, hard-working and vocal. They don't represent the majority of Utahns, or even the majority of mainstream Republicans, but passion and hard work produce a potent political force. A small group that shows up will always beat a large group that stays home.
Mitt Romney's health-care reform in Massachusetts has been dogging him in the presidential race. He tried to address the issue and put it behind him in a major speech. How'd he do?
Webb: Romney's speech definitely helped. He got beat up by the news media for a few news cycles after the speech, but that's to be expected. It's always better to address a vexing issue head-on, rather than let it fester. He hasn't put the matter entirely behind him, but news media and many Republican voters will eventually move on. He was right to frame it as a states' rights issue, one of the laboratories of democracy crafting a solution fitting that state. That's obviously vastly different than Obamacare. This issue will continue to be a problem for Romney, but he was right to directly address it.
Pignanelli: I rarely buy into conspiracy theories, but I am convinced the Eastern GOP elite, and right-wing activists, have a coordinated strategy to fatally injure Romney. Twice in the last month, The Wall Street Journal has delivered blistering editorials against Romney (they challenged his mental understanding of free market capitalism). GOP elected officials and tea partiers ramped up the rhetoric on RomneyCare, predicting problems in the primaries. These Republicans wanted a mea culpa from Romney for his health-care reform. Instead, he expressed pride for his achievement — which only aggravated his detractors. An artful would have helped, a little.
Talk has once again surfaced among politicos about replacing the caucus/convention candidate nominating system. What are the prospects?
Pignanelli: This is only possible if a majority of Republican and Democrat elected officials do a "Thelma and Louise" — drive off a cliff together. Politicos are not holding their collective breath.
Webb: Talk is easy. It's much harder to really get involved in Utah politics and fight to make a difference. The reality is that Utah's nominating process is not going to change because state delegates are the ones who would have to change it, and they like the present system just fine. Why would they want to give up power? Therefore, instead of agitating to change the system, people who are concerned about participation should get involved themselves, attend their party caucuses and stand for election as a county or state delegate or voting precinct officer. If you don't like the system, get involved and work from the inside. The process won't be changed from the outside.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.