With spring finally breaking out, most normal Utahns aren't paying much attention to politics. For the abnormal among us, here are some things to watch.
Utah's two main political parties will conduct officer elections at their upcoming state conventions. What are insiders saying about the candidates and the races?
Pignanelli: "Party is the madness of many for the gain of a few." — Alexander Pope
State Sen. Jim Dabakis ignored our unsolicited advice (most people do) and announced he will seek another term as Democratic state chair. Dabakis has thrown enough red meat to satiate the bellies of his base, and will be re-elected without serious opposition.
Other political commentators have noted (and I will not be outdone by them) that two-thirds of the Republican chair contenders possess a racial or ethnic background different from the majority population. This openness and progressive enlightenment is commendable. Until recently, diversity for Utah Republicans was based on which company of pioneers your ancestors belonged.
The current conventional wisdom among Utah politicos is that James Evans (former GOP Salt Lake County chair) will be the next state chairman. Evans enjoys the savvy, expertise and name identification to place him in front-runner status. However, insiders are noting that Aaron Gabrielson (chairman of the Wasatch County party) is gaining traction through hard work and a strong message. Marco Diaz (leader of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly) is known for his high energy, but so far is not viewed as a potential winner.
Webb: All three candidates for GOP chair are fine individuals who could capably lead the party. Evans, considered the frontrunner, is a hard-charging, aggressive partisan not afraid to mix it up with Democrats. He is also viewed as a mainstream conservative supported by the party establishment, and one of a growing number of black conservatives gaining national stature within the party.
Diaz, the most active candidate on social media, has worked hard in the party trenches, dealing with difficult immigration issues and fighting to keep Hispanic voters involved with the party. His serious candidacy is a nice breakthrough for Hispanic Republicans.
Gabrielson is young, smart and capable, hailing more from the tea party or "grassroots" faction of the party, the group suspicious of many elected officials and "elitists" (as they refer to me). The outcome may be determined by convention turnout. If the moderate delegates recruited by last year's Hatch campaign attend, then Evans probably wins. If mostly ideologues show up, who knows?
What challenges will the new leaders face in keeping their parties relevant in today's political climate?
Pignanelli: Utah Republicans really have it rough. Their numbers are so great they could all wear powdered wigs while dancing naked and shouting druid chants … and still hold power. However, if the animosity between the far right and mainstream Republicans over high profile issues of deep concern to Utahns (i.e. immigration, public education) fosters acrimony in public debate, clever Democrats can benefit in some races.
Dabakis has a short but difficult task list: expand election success outside Salt Lake County, take advantage of right-wing flubs and be ready should the Feds muddle the implementation of health care reform.
Webb: Republican leaders need to listen to mainstream Utahns and not get stuck in the purist, right-wing echo chamber. Utahns support limited government and low taxes, but we also believe local and state governments have generally been frugal and wise (unlike the federal government), and these governments need the resources to perform the duties we have asked them to do. Republicans will win if we focus on practical, common sense, problem-solving governance. Utah's "secret sauce" is collaboration and finding common ground to solve problems. If we do that well, we will dramatically outperform the rest of the country. If we engage in circular firing squads, we lose.
Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love is gearing up for another race against Congressman Jim Matheson in 2014. Are Love's chances better or worse this time around?
Pignanelli: Mayor Love acquired the Utah political equivalent of a thermonuclear weapon — she hired Utah's most successful political operative, Dave Hansen. Credentials for this former party Chairman are formidable, especially his brilliant leadership of the 2012 Orrin Hatch campaign. Yet, tough races are the rule and not the exception for Matheson. He is battle-hardened and ready for a rematch. Even with Hansen, Love will need a different message and strategy to be competitive with Matheson.
Webb: Last year was the obvious year to beat Matheson. It will be harder in the low-key election of 2014. But Love will also be a much better candidate with a much better campaign. Her inexperience showed in 2012. She took some early positions, trying to win the nomination, that haunted her throughout the race. She needs to appeal to mainstream Republicans — those who voted for Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch and Gary Herbert, and then crossed over and voted for Matheson. Matheson won't ever be defeated by a far-right ideologue. Been there, tried that (several times). Love is attractive and exciting. She also needs to be solid, steady and grown-up.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: [email protected]. 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 protected]