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Republicans balk at giving big money interests control of nominating process

Big moneyed interests are finding it more difficult than they thought to force Utah Republican Party activists to change their party’s nominating process.

During a half-day long-meeting of the Republican State Central Committee on March 23, Committee members consistently voted against changes designed to appease LaVarr Webb, Kirk Jowers, Michael Leavitt, Dave Hansen and their big moneyed, “Mainstream Republican,” allies who are threatening to overturn the existing caucus/conventionsystem by a ballot initiative.

Committee members even voted to reject public funds in order to protect the current caucus/convention system and to clearly send the message to Party leaders that they do not want them to capitulate to what one activist referred to as the “bosses.”

Wright recommends appeasing big money interests

Republican Party Chair Thomas Wright encouraged committee members to change the caucus/convention process because unless they voted for change, they risked losing everything.

Wright reported that he had met with those threatening to run the ballot initiative and that it was his opinion that they would pull back if the current caucus/convention system were changed to their liking.

In a document titled Principles for Acceptable Nominating Process that was made available to Committee members, LaVarr Webb set out four inherently inconsistent principles that Committee members had to accept in order to stop a ballot initiative.

  • Inclusive and Accessible. All eligible voters must have an opportunity to participate in all phases of the election process and the caucus system does not do this.
  • Broad Primary Election Choice. Changing required vote thresholds to allow more candidates out of convention and onto the primary ballot would allow more party voters to determine final party nominees.
  • Permanent. …an acceptable nomination process must not be subject to the whims of party delegates…..A long-term [legislative] statutory solution is required.
  • Fair. A system that provides inherent advantages to those who are incumbent, wealthy or famous is not acceptable.

Some Committee members took Webb’s document to be an ultimatum and they noted that the system the initiative backers are proposing would actually favor incumbents, the wealthy, the famous and the politically well connected.

Wright said that he takes the proponents of the initiative at their word and warned Committee members that if changes are not made, the Party will “have to run through the iceberg in front of us.” He then said that the last thing he wants to do as chair is to hit the iceberg and lose the caucus system.

Wright also told Committee members that Representative Dan McCay had called him and that he told McCay to call Webb and Jowers. According to Wright, McCay made the calls and came to the same conclusion that he had – that LaVarr Webb sees a lot of good in caucus convention system and doesn’t want it thrown out.

Several days later, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Dave Hansen who is working with former governor Mike Leavitt and others on a possible initiative drive said, “If changes are made by the parties then I’m not sure the group would go ahead.”

Wright told Committee members that he believes that a legal opinion issued by the initiative group’s attorneys was on the mark and he pointed out that Legislative Research attorneys had confirmed the accuracy of the legal opinion.

Wright asked Committee members to come up with proposals for significant change that he could take to those levying the threats against the caucus/convention system with the hope that they would forego their threatened ballot initiative.

He then referred Committee members to a chart setting out three scenarios:

1) The State Central Committee makes no changes to the current system. The Party tries to educate the public in order to save the caucus/convention system. The ballot initiative goes forward and passes.

2) The State Central Committee supports minor changes and educates the public to help defend the caucus/convention system. The ballot initiative moves forward and passes.

3) The State Central Committee supports making sufficient changes that resolve ballot initiative concerns.

Glaringly absent from his scenarios was one in which the Party stands its ground and takes those proposing the initiative head-on rather than fighting a purely defensive battle focused onappeasement and defeatism.

After indicating his support for scenario three (sufficient changes), Wright then attempted to move onto what he described as a series of non-binding votes on questions that addressed broad concepts designed to address criticisms of the caucus and convention systems.

Committee members push back

Committee members immediately pushed back.

Fred Cox made a motion to make voting secret. When it passed, Committee members exchanged electronic voting pads with one another in order to provide anonymity.

Arturo Morales asked who the “we” was that came up with the issues and the questions that Committee members were being asked to vote on. He was told that the “we” was Wright and other party leaders, those on various committees and anyone else who happened to be around. Wright also said that any question could be changed and that additional questions could be added.

In response to an inquiry from Lisa Shepherd, Wright said that the meeting was operating as a quasi-committee of whole and would be taking formal but non-binding votes. No limit was put on debate or the number of times a Committee member could speak.

Cherilyn Eager than told those present that “This gives us opportunity to rise up against bosses who want to take our votes and buy them.” She referenced the twenty-five page legal opinion submitted by those demanding major changes in the caucus system and asked “Who are these people? Where is the money coming from?” She then argued that even though Legislative Research says the legal opinion is o.k. there is another side to it.

Wright responded that he was quite certain that the opposition group could raise the money for the initiative and he said that they are in process of drafting legal documents for the initiative. He indicated that he would be happy to provide answers to Eager’s questions if they were submitted in writing.

Eager retorted that it was hard to make decisions when Committee members don’t know exactly who is behind the threatened initiative. She noted, however, that it was her understanding that many are lobbyists and that they support both sides of the political aisle. She concluded by warning Committee members against moving ahead prematurely.

Larry Jensen expressed pride in the quality of representatives that Utah sends to Washington and of the state’s other elected officials. He then said that “The results of our elections have been outstanding because we have had great candidates that went on to reflect our values. I hope that we don' swap it out for something else.”

Wright responded with a long history of how the caucus/convention system has evolved over the years.

A Utah County Committee member said “We are running scared by a bunch of outside lobbyists and I wasn’t elected to come up to cower before them.”

Mathew Bell, Weber County Chair cautioned Committee members against making policy based on polls that indicate that an initiative to change the caucus system will pass. “If LaVarr Webb and his group may have a million dollars, let them go ahead with their initiative,” said Bell. “We cannot be scared of these folks. We need to be cautious of these folks. If we are a perfect state, why are we perfect? Because if elected officials don’t vote right, we throw them out.”

Craig Foster of Davis County advised against acting on emotion and destroying the current system. “We want to act on facts and carefully evaluate everything. I didn’t grow up in Utah. I grew up in California. I saw the governor zero times. I saw U.S. Senators zero times. The one wonderful thing about this system is that it goes to the local level and it is not based on big money lobbyists who determine who will be on the ballot. What we have is really grassroots with people who talk to each other and then elect delegates. Candidates have to address people at the grass root level including people who don’t live in big population areas”.

Wright responded that if there are good changes,” we shouldn’t avoid them.” State Senator Todd Weiler spoke in support of Wright and asked Committee members to remember the changes made in the past including reducing the threshold for avoid a primary election from 70% to 60% which may account for some of the lower voter turnout. Weiler concluded by reminding Committee members that the “Current caucus system was not designed by God.”

Merrill Cook and several others cautioned that change may be necessary to save the current system and encourage Committee members to be open to change.

Lt. Governor Greg Bell, pointed out that LaVarr Webb and others supporting the initiative always argue that people want to be able to vote for incumbents [such as former Senator Bennett and former Governor Walker]. Bell suggested that the Party needs to look at making it easier to run write in campaigns and he pointed to the examples of incumbents Joe Lieberman and Lisa Murkowski who won by write ins after they were denied their parties’ nominations. He also recommended raising the 60% threshold since that bothers people who don’t get a chance to vote. Bell suggested raising the hurdle to 70-75% in order to give more people opportunity to vote and opined that if that were done, it would help avoid the threatened ballot initiative.

Committee members then voted on a series of proposed changes to the caucus system. (Click here to view all questions and results. Percentages reported in this article combine both strong and moderate support or opposition votes since voting was done on a scale of 1- 5.)

Widespread acknowledgment of threat to current caucus/convention system and openness to change

A large majority (70%) of Central Committee members acknowledged that the proposed initiative was a threat to the caucus system and 63% said they would support reforms to the caucus system. 73% acknowledged that there were legitimate reasons for not being able to attend a caucus meeting and 63% expressed at least some support for making it easier for those with legitimate reasons to attend.

Little support for major caucus/convention changes

When given options for increasing participation, Committee members were hesitant to make major changes to the existing caucus and convention systems.

48% of Committee members supported early voting for precinct caucuses while 45% opposed early voting. 62% said they would support holding caucus meetings on Saturday while only 16% supported meetings on Sunday. 68% opposed allowing individuals to participate by mail. 83% rejected holding special caucus meetings for people unable to attend regularly scheduled meetings. Online or virtual caucus meetings were strongly rejected (87%); however, 40% expressed at least some support for a combination of in person and online caucus meetings. 77% rejected extending the timeframe for electronic voting for caucus meetings while 51% rejected allowing online voting for 24 hours after the caucus meeting in order to allow those who couldn’t attend to vote.

Committee members supported moving the date of the Republican primary later in the year so delegates have more time to vet candidates (55% Yes 26% No).

62% rejected automatically sending the top two candidates to a primary election and 85% opposed raising the threshold required to become the nominee at convention from 60% go 80%. However, 59% supported requiring a 2/3 (67%) majority in order to automatically become the party’s nominee. 63% rejected to proposition that a primary election runoff between Carl Wimmer and Mia Love would have helped Love beat Matheson. 21% said it would have.

75% opposed giving unaffiliated voters the right to speak and vote in Republican caucus meetings and 93% opposed allowing them to run for and hold Party offices and delegate positions. 95% opposed an open primary where all voters (unaffiliated, Democrats, etc.) could vote in the Republican primary and 76% oppose allowing unaffiliated voters vote in Republican primaries.

Strong support for using technology to improve caucus operations

There was strong support for using technology such as electronic check in and voting and pre-registration to improve caucus meetings.

91% supported using an online tool to facilitate caucus registration. 71% supported allowing people to declare their candidacy for various precinct offices and delegate positions prior to the caucus meeting. 95% supported a greater use of technology to make caucus meetings easier to administer. 85% of Committee members supported using GOP funds to educate people about the caucus system and 56% supported legislation that would require high school seniors to have one week of caucus training.

Reject government funding to reduce vulnerability to outside threats

A question that was added by Committee members read: “Because we receive public funding, we are not a totally private organization. Would you be willing to give up our public funding to make us more private and less vulnerable to outside threats.” 57% said yes while only 36% said no thereby sending a message to party leaders that rather than caving in to outside demands, Central Committee members want them to stand up and fight.

Party leadership disappointed

Wright was obviously disappointed with the results which tended to reject changes to the current caucus/convention system while supporting changes that would streamline the existing system.

Former Party Chair, Stan Lockhart tried on two separate occasions to change the way Committee members were voting. In both instances, Wright heaped praise on Lockhart for his contributions. Following the completion of voting on caucus alternatives, Lockhart suggest that Committee members go back and vote again on some of the proposed reforms because “We are looking for permission to look at expanding boundaries and we need to frame up questions to allow the Constitution and Bylaws committee to come up with ideas for us to debate and vote on at the next State Central Committee meeting.” Delegates ignored Lockhart’s suggestion in both instances.

By the end of the long afternoon, all that was left for Wright to do as Committee members packed up their notes was to make one final plea for substantive changes in order to avoid a ballot initiative.

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