Two things ought to be clear after last Tuesday’s special election to choose a candidate to represent the Republican Party in the race to replace Jason Chaffetz in the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
The first is that money from out-of-state political action committees, especially when used to fund negative ads, does not work in Utah. The second is that the convention delegate system for choosing the party’s candidates is out of touch with the party’s electorate.
Neither lesson is new or particularly earth-shattering. The frustrating thing is that the lessons apparently have to be learned over and over again.
Tanner Ainge and Chris Herrod received support from negative ads created by PACs that, by law, are not controlled by the candidates. Provo Mayor John Curtis, the winner, did not.
In 2004, Republicans should have learned the lesson about outside-sponsored negative ads after the National Republican Congressional Committee pumped about $1 million into John Swallow’s attempt to unseat Democrat Jim Matheson in the 2nd Congressional District. Those ads distorted Matheson’s record and backfired badly as Matheson won.
Utah voters seem to have an aversion to such tactics, and that is a good thing.
But the most startling lesson to contemplate is that Republican voters in the 3rd District wouldn’t even have had a choice Tuesday if state lawmakers hadn’t passed SB54, which allows candidates to skip the convention process and gain access to the ballot through a petition.
Curtis tried both the convention and petition routes. Conventional delegates eliminated him after several rounds of voting, but only after passing special rules to get the job done. Under normal rules, the convention turns the decision over to a primary election if no candidate receives at least 60 percent delegate support. But the convention decided that, this time, only one candidate could emerge, even if he or she didn’t get 60 percent.
As a result, Herrod was the only candidate to emerge. Curtis and Ainge had to gather signatures to force a primary.
Tuesday’s results made it clear that rank-and-file Republican voters felt differently about which candidate should emerge to compete in the November general election.
Numerous surveys through the years have shown that this split is not new. Most recently, the Utah Foundation, an independent research group, found in 2016 that Republican delegates are more politically homogeneous than registered party members statewide, and that the two groups have different priorities.
For instance, Republican voters listed health care as their top priority, while delegates listed states’ rights.
Representation also is skewed. Women made up 56 percent of the Republican electorate but comprised only 24 percent of delegates, the survey found.
The Republican Party has mounted several legal challenges to SB54 and continues to argue against its importance. This election ought to make it clear that such efforts should cease. The party would be better off changing its rules to allow for more access to ballots, more voter participation and more primary elections.
Utah’s voter turnout has been on a steady decline for years. While it wouldn’t be right to blame the convention system entirely for this, a closed system clearly discourages participation.
Conventions won’t come into play for another year, but we hope the lesson about negative outside advertising is heeded during the general election campaign, which begins now.