Rick Bowmer, AP
In this Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, file photo, shows the Utah House of Representatives on the floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Some zealots in the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee have taken steps to control party membership and reject candidates who gather signatures to get in the primary election ballot. This action has been widely ridiculed and could create chaos. Important questions are being asked.

As activists in both major political parties move to ideological extremes, as exemplified by the Central Committee action, are parties becoming irrelevant?

Pignanelli: “All sacrifices of common sense … are uniformly made at the expense of the majority.” — James Fenimore Cooper

These rogue members of the GOP Central Committee accomplished an amazing feat — forging Republicans of all stripes, right-leaning independents, pundits and many others into a strong common belief that the state’s largest political party is dysfunctional and approaching meaninglessness. Indeed, local politicos are engaging in humorous conjectures about these strident delegates’ intellectual capacity and which planet they call home. Equally bizarre, the California Democratic party recently declined to endorse liberal lion Sen. Diane Feinstein.

Those of us engaged in intense activities during this legislative session are grateful for this comedic relief from boring, meandering discussions.

The de facto leaders of the two major parties (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders) were never members of the organizations until they filed for president. Mainstream Republicans are disappointed a GOP-controlled Congress cannot enact meaningful changes other than tax reform. Moderate Democrats are openly grumbling that they are unsure what their party stands for beyond anti-Trump declarations or appeasement of the extreme left.

Solutions to America’s problems are crafted in state houses and city halls — in nonpartisan fashion. Polling research documents that most Americans’ belief structure does not fit into the extreme elements dominating the parties.

I am of the school that the current irrelevance of the parties is a direct result of the major transformation happening across our country as political forces are moving and realigning. But then again, I could be just as off-base as those quirky delegates.

Webb: Normal Utahns just roll their eyes at the silliness. No doubt, citizen support of political parties is being eroded by the antics on the extremes. This entire effort by the Central Committee is meant to thwart Count My Vote. But it will actually have the opposite effect.

Messaging in the upcoming campaign to encourage voters to support the Count My Vote ballot measure has now become much easier. We simply need to ask: Do you really want these people choosing your party nominees? That ought to be worth a few hundred thousand votes in favor of the initiative.

It’s hard to understand the strategy of the zealots, but part of it seems aimed at instigating a new court battle to invalidate SB54 and return exclusively to the caucus/convention system. Here’s a prediction: If somehow a court agrees with the party insiders and overturns SB54 (very unlikely), a mass defection of mainstream Utahns from the Republican Party will occur. Having had a taste of the empowerment of all party voters choosing party nominees, there’s no way Utahns are going to be forced back to a nomination system controlled by a handful of ultra-conservative party elitists.

We would see most of the mainstream party leadership in the state, including former governors, former party chairs, numerous former party elected officials and most business leaders, abandon the party and move wholesale into something new. The once-Grand Old Party would be a shriveled shadow of itself, made up of extremists fighting among themselves with no ability to get anyone elected. The caucus/convention system is a relic of a bygone era and Utah is not returning to it, even if it means the Republican Party dries up and blows away.

How will the current GOP Central Committee action impact candidates in the 2018 election?

Pignanelli: State officials are likely to implement measures that counter the Central Committee prohibition of signature-gathering candidates. But warning is given that candidates who are a smidgeon off the orthodoxy meter must resort to the petition route. Placing the fate of a campaign to the whim of delegates borders on political malpractice. For legislative races, this complicates the messaging to keep neighborhood activists enthusiastic while maintaining an outreach to the rational majority to vote in the primary.

Webb: Legislative action is likely pending and lawsuits could be filed, so all sorts of scenarios are possible. For now, candidates should just ignore the shenanigans of the extremists and move forward gathering signatures, or going through the caucus/convention system, or both, as they have planned.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who runs the Utah Elections Office, faces tough decisions on whether to take action against the GOP if it forces his hand by kicking out candidates who gather signatures.

Will Democrats and the United Utah parties benefit from the circular firing squad in the Republican Party?

Pignanelli: These interparty antics are insider baseball that most people ignore. Yet, Utahns consistently tell pollsters they abhor punitive actions that exclude good faith participants. If Republican elected officials do not squash the results of this insurgency, voters will take notice. This will foster negative comparisons to the national party — which is never a good situation for any Utah politician.

1 comment on this story

Webb: Most voters distinguish between candidates and the party. Even if they view the antics of the party zealots with bemusement or amusement, citizens will vote for solid candidates who reflect their values and views. 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]