The other day I ran into a former state GOP chairman who bemoaned internal Republican Party politics these days.

A few days later I spoke with a former GOP state legislator, who asked aloud what was now going on in the Utah Legislature where he served so many years.

The former chairman (not Joe Cannon, who is now the Deseret News editor but was also a former party chairman), had been reading about various shenanigans within the party — like a party official who wouldn't let the legal problems of a House incumbent be discussed in a candidate debate, a party leader giving money to a GOP candidate before a contested convention and so on.

The former chairman said: "That stuff wasn't happening when I was chairman — what has changed?"

The former legislator asked me if the Legislature was really as nutty as he was reading about in the newspapers. Did lobbyists and other special interests really have such pull as it appeared?

I've thought about what the two men asked. I, after all, was reporting on the Legislature and on Utah politics during their times in office.

I don't profess to have clear answers — except maybe this: In the 1980s and parts of the 1990s, state politics was more of a part-time affair. And the issues, while important at the time, didn't rise to the impacts of today.

Simply put — things just didn't matter as much on Capitol Hill as they seem to now.

One of the biggest changes is money — more money flowing into campaigns, more money spent by campaigns, and decisions made by lawmakers and party leaders nowadays mean much more money to those affected.

The stakes have gone up.

And with those increases, the impacts of lawmakers' decisions mean so much more.

President Bush comes to town this week, and to attend a small, exclusive dinner with him will cost $70,100 per couple. Think of that: the cost of a four-year college education at a good public university to just eat dinner with the president.

A Utah state Senate race can cost $100,000 per final candidate; a House race can cost $50,000.

Want to run for the U.S. House as a challenger? You almost have to be a millionaire and self-fund your campaign to the tune of half a million dollars to be competitive.

All incumbents, from the state Legislature to Congress, raise by far most of their money from special interests. One former state Senate president said several years ago that when he got 200 e-mail/telephone calls in one day during the general session, he would return the messages of people whose names he recognized — and those were often the people, businesses or lobbyists who had donated to his last campaign.

Now, some (like many legislators, congressmen, lobbyists or other special interests) may argue that the current political system is not out off whack at all. By and large, Utahns like what their elected officials do, and that is why they keep sending them back in re-elections.

Perhaps. But consider this: No Utah U.S. senator has been voted out of office since 1976. Merrill Cook lost his U.S. House seat in 2000; Bill Orton lost his in 1996; Karen Shepherd lost hers in 1994; and Gunn McKay lost his in 1980. So in 78 U.S. House elections since 1980, only three incumbents have lost — all the rest were retirements or incumbents wining re-election.

The Utah Legislature, likewise, is a place of safe re-elections, year in and year out.

In the 2006 legislative elections — with all 75 House members up and half of the 29 senators — 93.75 percent of the incumbent House members seeking re-election won. And 82 percent of the senators running again won. Historically speaking, between 85 percent and 90 percent of Utah legislators who seek re-election win.

Add to those numbers the fact that only one-third of Utahns can even name their House or Senate member — likely voting instead along party lines — and one sees the incredible advantage of incumbency.

Lawmakers can raise large sums of money from special interests (a number of Utah legislators get not one campaign contribution from a constituent).

As a body, lawmakers set the rules of their own fundraising, elections and lobbyist entertaining. After every 10-year census, lawmakers draw their own district boundaries, where the majority Republicans can draw lines to protect themselves, and even a few accommodating Democrats can move their district lines around a bit, also.

Finally, changing the current system is darn near impossible. Campaign and ethics reform legislation dies every Legislature. Incumbents naturally like a system where 90 percent get re-elected and incumbents can raise tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds that can go directly into legislators' pockets, if they so desire.

The good side of all of this is that most Utah politicians are fair, honest people trying to do a good job. But they are clearly locked in a poorly designed political system that even well-meaning incumbents can't change.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]