The caucus is dead and the delegates killed it

By Jesse Harris

I’ve long been a very strong supporter of the caucus system for choosing party nominees and a vocal critic of the Count My Vote effort to circumvent it. But I’m also a political realist, someone who sees what the playing field is like and knows when you have to adjust your tactics. Sadly, the most ardent supporters of the caucus system seem to be pretty clueless in this regard. In fact, I’d argue that it’s already dead, they don’t know it, and they did most of the work to kill it.

The core of the fight is and always has been about who gets to determine what candidates receive the party nomination on the ballot. It matters in Utah because, in most races, that shiny red R means you’re going to cruise straight into the seat you’re running for. I agree entirely that the GOP should have the right to determine who does and does not get to take home that party label. That right, however, comes with an enormous responsibility to make sure that the process is one that all party members, not just a select few, are generally content with.

A race that really sticks out to me as one where the GOP insiders and the party membership as a whole went totally different directions is the special election to replace Jason Chaffetz. John Curtis had an absolutely dismal performance at convention, yet he’s now a Congressman. This should shock nobody. Despite my strong personal disagreements with him, I recognized very readily that he’s a top-tier candidate, a popular mayor from a large city with a broad base of support. I was also shocked that Sen. Deidre Henderson, a woman with an impressive legislative record AND policy positions that should jive with a very large portion of the party, was eliminated at convention in favor of a complete firebrand with a penchant for Nazi comparisons like Chris Herrod.

Likewise, it looks like a real possibility that Mitt Romney, probably only second in popularity to Spencer Cox, might not actually win the nomination outright at convention. Mitt! This guy is basically a rockstar here in Utah guaranteed to win just about any primary or general election he’s placed in. Like Curtis, I have significant disagreements with him, but I can’t discount that he’s what the people want, yet the party delegates seem hellbent on making sure he doesn’t make it to the ballot.

And this is what’s really killing the caucus. For a long time now, the people with the strongest opinions have seen the position of delegate not as one where the best representatives of the party as a whole are advanced, but as a kind of super-vote where you get to play kingmaker. The interests of a healthy center-right party presenting likewise candidates popular with a broad cross-section of the population are non-existent anymore.

This problem is no more apparent than with Dave Bateman’s apparent purchase of the Utah Republican Party after its quixotic debt-fueled fight to try and retain kingmaker status. With a very small group of State Central Committee (SCC) members to enforce that purchase, he now controls the direction and policy of the entire party to a point where Chairman Rob Anderson appears to have little power or say over direction. More alarmingly, the group supporting fighting to the bitter end with borrowed money (and believe me, Dave is acting like he expects to be paid back and not necessarily financially) has also cut out most of the rest of the SCC, a tyranny of the minority that appears to be unable to be countered.

Trust me, voters notice this kind of WAY insider ball. And they also don’t appreciate it much when their intelligence is being insulted with some of the most asinine arguments in favor of the caucus. “There’s too many choices on the ballot and we should narrow them down.” Show me a time where “you have too many choices” won someone over. “A stealth Democrat could sneak through and usurp the party label.” That’s a thing that has never happened. “The signature route supports wealthy elitists over the common man.” Says a group whose intentions, by all appearances, seem to be establishing their own elite order by which candidates are nominated. I’ve witnessed caucus supporters gradually notice this awful behavior and say “you know what, I don’t like CMV, but boy it’s gotta be better than this insanity.”

Delegates could have done any number of things to improve the nominating process while retaining the caucus. Keeping the threshold to avoid a primary very high (2/3 or 70%) would have done wonders. Advancing more than two candidates to a primary with ranked-choice or instant runoff voting would have worked too. Spending less time rewriting rules to favor very small groups would certainly have improved the party’s public image.

The nominating job of the party is the showy party, but the real work is boring: supporting the party’s nominees and elected officials. Think about how much the money spent on fighting CMV could have done in tight races. Sophia DiCaro might still be in the legislature. The Salt Lake County Council might have a 2/3 GOP majority. Donors might actually contribute to the party instead of avoiding it. But now the party is almost entirely disempowered from controlling its own nomination process with little hope that it’ll change course. Worse yet, the boring work of running the party is largely abandoned by a large segment of the delegates who don’t even bother to show up at the organizing convention during “off” years, a serious abdication of their responsibilities and duties.

That the delegates as a whole have chosen not to be wise stewards of the party but instead allow things to progress well into raging dumpster fire territory is a condemnation of the human predisposition to abuse power when it is given. The party is incapable of governing itself, candidates are bypassing the caucus process entirely (almost every candidate I will be vetting at the Iron County Republican Convention on Saturday has also collected signatures), and the few donors we can attract to dig us out the mess seem more interested in controlling the party to ensure it makes a few more passes at the windmill than restoring it back to a functional state. I still believe in the caucus system, but the people who are currently in charge of it don’t deserve any of our trust and faith after their frequent bouts of self-immolation.

P.S. This is why I went to caucus night and ran for a county delegate position. If you feel like I do, support center-right political positions, and didn’t do likewise, you’re as much to blame as the crazy people. Thanks so much for leaving the mess for the few of us willing to do the work. REALLY appreciate it. Jerks.

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