SALT LAKE CITY — A flicker of the smoldering battle within Utah's Republican Party over the candidate-nominating process that has empowered the party's upstart tea party faction showed itself on the floor of the House.
Tea party Republican Rep. John Dougall, of American Fork, urged lawmakers to back a bill that would eliminate the tax return check-off for the Election Campaign Fund, which he called a "direct subsidy" to private, nonprofit political parties.
But Dougall also revealed an underlying motive for the change, arguing that his proposal could also hold off calls to reform Utah's caucus nominating system and threaten the power of tea party Republicans.
At those neighborhood precinct meetings, party members choose state and county delegates to attend the conventions and nominate the parties' candidates for local, legislative, statewide and congressional offices. If a candidate doesn't get at least 60 percent of the convention vote, the two top vote-getters face off in a primary. Only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary, while the Democrat primary is open to all voters.
But is the caucus/convention nominating system, which Democrats employ as well, really under any threat of change?
"I don't see a serious move to do that right now," said House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo.
Self-described old-guard Republican LaVarr Webb agrees that any caucus reform effort would not happen until at least 2014, meaning any changes wouldn't go into effect until 2016.
"There's still very strong support for it," he said.
Webb, a political consultant and the publisher of utahpolicy.com, said that because neither the party nor the Legislature has any interest in changing the caucus system, he and other moderate Republicans hope to launch a statewide ballot initiative to appeal directly to voters.
But since there's no time to gather the nearly 100,000 required signatures by the April 15 deadline to qualify a ballot initiative, it won't happen until 2014, he said.
Although, delegates in the state convention could vote to change the system as well, Webb noted.
That initiative would seek to add an alternative track for candidates to get on the primary ballot, he said, by gathering a requisite number of signatures to bypass the caucus/convention nominating system, which would still be left intact.
But state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright criticized that proposal saying he's not even sure such a dual-track nominating system would pass legal muster.
"I think our caucus system works fine," he said.
Democrats don't face a similar threat to the nominating system, so they are somewhat ambivalent about making changes to the candidate selection process, state party chairman Jim Dabakis said.
The nationwide "Occupy" movement, known for its campaign of highly visible public protests and would be the closest parallel to the tea party for Democrats, has no Democratic representatives in the Legislature, Dubakis said, and no Democratic candidates running for office in Utah.
On the other hand, there are at least 15 to 20 "very tea party people" among Republican legislators, he said, and some of those are now seeking the party's nomination to run for Congress.
Still, Democrats may consider a direct election primary, Dubakis added.
"I think that's something the Democratic Party should and will look at in this next year."
Every Democratic House member opposed Dougall's bill, HB50, to do away with the tax return check-off, Dabakis said. The bill passed the House 51-20 and is now before the Senate Rules Committee.
But the proposal would hurt Republicans more than Democrats, Dabakis said, since the fund gives the GOP about twice the funding.
Calling it a "dumb idea," Dabakis said, "The Republicans get a lot more than we do, so let them do away with it if they want."
But the proposal would especially hurt small, rural party organziation, he added, such as those in Daggett, Piute and Garfield counties that most depend on the funds. The Election Campaign Fund law requires that half the money collected go to rural county parties, Dabakis said.
The fund earmarked around $84,000 in state funds for Republicans in 2009 and $37,000 for Democrats, according to the State Tax Commission. But in 2006 — a year of congressional midterm elections and better economic times — the fund paid about $150,000 to the GOP and $100,000 to Democrats.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett is identified as a victim of the current candidate nominating system, since he was rejected as the party's nominee in the state convention. Now, Sen. Orrin Hatch is said to be facing similar opposition in his quest for a seventh term. But if there's any hope of the Republican moderates regaining influence lost to the tea party movement, it might just be through the system in place now, Webb said.
The state Republican Party has vowed to spend $300,000 this year promoting public education and participation in the caucuses — including paid media — with the goal of bringing out 100,000 GOP voters compared to around 58,000 in 2010, he said.
If that effort brings out more moderate voters, and if an improving economy takes the fire out of the tea party movement, Webb added, things may change in the Republican Party anyway.
Dabakis added: "The most interesting political question is, 'Has the tea party peaked?' We'll find out. We'll find out at the (Republican) state convention."
Republican caucuses will be held March 15; Democratic, March 13; and the state conventions for both parties are in April. The state primary election is June 26.
A GOP info sheet posted on its website explains its Caucus Night:
"Having small groups like this guarantees a direct line from citizen to candidate (a grass-roots system). Every voice counts in the caucus/convention system because, when you are elected to be a delegate, you have a significant amount of influence in determining who your representatives will be."