Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Rob Anderson, chair of the Utah Republican Party. Anderson is valiantly and courageously trying to restore sanity in the party. He accepts the law allowing signature gathering as a legitimate way to get on the ballot.

Like their national counterparts, Utah Republicans engage in circular firing squads. Party members are now engaged in bitter internal warfare over how party nominees are selected. Republican vs. Republican is fun to watch.

Polls show Utahns are happy with the current hybrid nomination process allowing candidates to use the caucus/convention system, gather signatures or both to get on the primary election ballot. But despite losing on every front and incurring extreme debt, die-hard defenders of forcing exclusive use of the caucus/convention process continue to fight Count My Vote/SB 54. What is driving all this internal consternation inside an otherwise successful Republican Party?

Pignanelli: "In politics, you need two things: friends, but above all, an enemy." —Brian Mulroney

Intense video gamers are strange individuals who collectively engage in cloistered activities to fight mythical enemies in fantasy environments the rest of humanity ignores because such battles are irrelevant. GOP activists who spend countless hours strategizing to overcome the “evil forces” behind Count My Vote are the political equivalent of video gamers. Attention to the political process is commendable, but their efforts have no real impact (other than incurring legal fees).

Why engage in this fight? Political warriors need opponents to define them. Too few Utah Democrats exist, so these Republican agitators are creating enemies among their own ranks. Further, delegates enjoy their positions of influence inside the nomination process and do not willingly surrender such privilege.

As with most gamers, these political combatants will eventually exhaust their energies and focus on other controversies (aka hobbies).

Webb: It’s all about maintaining power. After ousting Sen. Bob Bennett at a state convention in 2010, a small faction of far-right ideologues enjoyed control of the party nomination process until Count My Vote/SB 54 gave all party voters a voice in candidate selection. Having political power wrested away is hard to take for party insiders.

It is telling that die-hard caucus defenders are even at odds with their own Republican state Chairman Rob Anderson, who deserves some sort of major award for fighting the good fight, for dealing with unreasonable extremists. Anderson is valiantly and courageously trying to restore sanity in the party. He accepts the law allowing signature gathering as a legitimate way to get on the ballot. He is being harshly attacked by segments of his own party. If the Central Committee and party delegates devise some way to oust him, the GOP would effectively become a small fringe organization not supported by mainstream Utahns or business leaders.

Defenders of the old system say they represent Republicans. That is demonstrably untrue. Republican voters in overwhelming numbers made different choices from Republican delegates in the recent elections of Gov. Gary Herbert and Congressman John Curtis. (And they likely will again when Mitt Romney runs for the Senate.) The caucus/convention system is a relic of the past.

Caucus/convention supporters are attempting to launch a 2018 initiative petition to invalidate SB 54. Does this effort have a chance of succeeding?

Pignanelli: From when the Legislature modified the signature requirement for initiatives to 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 Senate districts, no effort has succeeded in ballot placement. Any initiative campaign that accomplishes this goal in 2018 will do so at the cost of millions of dollars. The "Keep My Vote" activists do not possess such resources. Further, should they defy odds and secure a vote on the measure, a majority of Utahns who currently support the current hybrid solution must be convinced otherwise.

If this silly endeavor is actually accomplished, I promise to dedicate a statement in this column saying nice things about Richard M. Nixon and to give to 20 of my friends a present of his memoirs.

Webb: Frank’s friends are safe from Richard Nixon. If this proposal somehow got on the ballot, it would only help the Count My Vote initiative institutionalize the hybrid process. Voters would have a clear and stark choice: Deliver control of the nomination process to a handful of activists, or allow all voters to participate in the process. Utahns are pretty smart. It’s obvious how they would vote.

Although the Democrats are a small minority in Utah, do they face similar internal struggles, or is the perception of unity real?

Pignanelli: Their playground is much smaller, but Democrats do have squabbles. The overwhelming success of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Utah presidential primary emboldened his followers. Some are expected to challenge Democrat incumbents they view as too moderate or mainstream.

6 comments on this story

Webb: The Democratic Party has lurched so far to the left that many moderate Democrats don’t feel comfortable in the party. Candidates like Ben McAdams could be hurt. "Bomb-throwing" leftist James Dabakis is the face of the party in Utah, while ultraliberal doomsayers Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren embarrass the party at the national level.

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 the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: [email protected]