A Terrible Negotiating Strategy: the Utah Republican Party goes all or nothing on SB 54

I love the Caucus/Convention system. I began at the grassroots level 25 years ago. I have served in virtually every grassroots position in the Republican Party. I’ve been Chair of the Utah Republican Party and Chair of the Utah County Republican Party. I continue to serve today as a Legislative District Chair. I’ll put my grassroots credentials up against anyone’s. I want our Caucus/Convention system to survive.

A Terrible Negotiating Strategy: The Utah Republican Party goes all or nothing on SB 54
By Stan Lockhart

Just three years ago, Count My Vote (CMV) was formed by Utah political power brokers demanding changes to Utah’s Caucus/Convention system. Direct primaries were their goal. At face value, getting more people involved in the political process seemed noble, but political insiders figured that CMV was a ploy to transfer the balance of political power from grassroots delegates to money. I was one of those skeptics. In fact, I kept saying that before considering election changes, we should look at current Utah election outcomes. Utah wins lots of awards for good government: Best Managed State, Best State for Business, Best State for Economic Dynamism, Best State for Business and Careers, Best State for Economic Outlook and #2 State for Economic Performance. The private sector gets most of the credit, but government policies do play a role. With outcomes like this, why would we try to fix something that isn’t broken?

Utah has gone over the last several decades from one of the highest voter participation States to one of the lowest. Endless debate abounds as to the reasons why.

In spite of their direct primary goal, three years ago, CMV approached the Utah Republican Party with an offer to work together to solve the problem of voter participation. Many aspects were discussed, but CMV’s final offer to avoid a citizen initiative was to have the Party do one thing: change the threshold to avoid a primary at convention from 60% of the delegate vote to 67% of the delegate vote. Since the threshold had been 70% up until the late 1990s, it was a reasonable offer. Party leadership advocated for the deal, yet multiple times the Republican State Central Committee voted down the change. Among the reasoning: “CMV is bluffing and won’t spend $1 million to pass an initiative”, “we won’t negotiate with a threat hanging over our head”, “CMV will renege on the deal and run the initiative anyway”, etc. Opponents ignored fundamental negotiation strategy which begins with risk management.

The rest is history. CMV did spend about $1 million, organized aggressively in all 29 Utah counties and were assured of getting the necessary signatures by the deadline. Polling showed over 70% of Utahns supporting direct primaries over Caucus/Convention. The train was moving down the tracks for a direct primary system and it appeared nothing would stop it.

Sign ups at the 2014 Utah Republican Party caucus meetings at Lakeview Elementary in Provo, Utah for Precinct Provo 20.  Photo by Keri Witte.
Sign ups at the 2014 Utah Republican Party caucus meetings at Lakeview Elementary in Provo, Utah for Precinct Provo 20. Photo by Keri Witte.

Could anyone save the Caucus system? Into the breach stepped State Senator Curt Bramble who has never shied away from taking on hard issues and solving problems. He ran SB 54 in the 2014 legislative session that eliminated the direct primary option, protected the caucus/convention system and instituted some changes to increase voter participation and turnout. Both the Republican Party and CMV disliked his bill. SB 54 began moving through the legislative process passing out of committee and out of the Senate. CMV appealed to the public through the media. Governor Herbert threatened a veto. Support for the bill began to wane in the House. Senator Bramble continually met with Party leaders, CMV, Legislators and the Governor’s office trying to find common ground. He even made a presentation to the Utah Republican Party Central Committee. The final version of SB 54 had a dual track, allowing a signature gathering path to a Primary but allowing the Parties to nominate at convention their own preferred candidates. The amended SB 54 passed both the House and Senate.

Since that time revisionist history has been rampant. Based on the all the rumor and innuendo, you would think the Legislature destroyed the Caucus/Convention system rather than save it. The purpose of a political Party is twofold: get your candidates elected and promote your principles and values found in the Party platform. That presupposes that Parties reach out to ever-increasing numbers of voters and potential voters to educate them and persuade them to vote for their candidates.

Instead, the Republican Party has demonstrated over and over again the last three years that they have no interest in more voter participation. Instead, there have been comments from Central Committee members making the case for fewer voters to participate because ordinary voters aren’t knowledgeable enough. There is a general attitude from those in power in the Party to keep the status quo and their own power at all costs. No compromise on any part of this issue is their mantra. The result is an all-or-nothing approach that has culminated in the Party losing at every turn to get their way. The Party has lost the public relations battle with polling still showing large majorities for an alternate path to the ballot. The Party lost their Legislative battle with their own Republican Legislature super-majority. The Party lost their first court battle and it appears they will lose the next court battle. If this nonsense continues, the Party will next lose voter support.

The Utah Republican Party’s most recent proposals of a $10,000 fee for candidates to run as Republicans and a purity test for all Republican candidates are just more evidence of being out of touch with reality. This exclusionary thinking goes against the fundamental purpose of a political Party and makes the Party irrelevant in the entire discussion of getting more people involved in Utah’s political process. The more the Party makes outlandish proposals, the more they prove the CMV hypothesis that those with power within the Utah Republican Party are so power-hungry they won’t give up that power even if by doing so more Utah voters will get involved. It is a sad state of affairs.

Many say that all of this Republican Party dysfunction is a failure of Party leadership to lead. As a former Republican Party Chair, I know just how difficult it is to lead a Party. The most difficult responsibility of a Party Chair is to propose Party direction that challenges Central Committee preference. Almost all Chairs face that dilemma and their legacy becomes how they handled those difficult issues. To my friend James Evans, I would say that his legacy hangs in the balance.

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