We’re about a year away from the heat of the 2016 campaign season, and roughly six months away from filing or signature gathering. For the past year now, though, it appears that the real goal of Count My Vote will end in utter failure. That goal: a groundswell of moderation that would make Senator Mike Lee (Republican) a one-term US Senator. What can we learn from this? Clearly, it appears that, again, any attempts to moderate or change the Utah politics by changing Utah Republicans has failed, just like it always has.
Let’s recap: a group of mostly-moderate, entirely old-guard Republicans (and some Democrats) were stung by the loss of Bob Bennett in the 2010 Republican Convention. This group, led by former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (Republican), Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers, Zions Bank President Scott Anderson, Josh Romney, Jon Huntsman, Sr., and many of their past staffs, were out of power, derided by a new establishment – even the then-chair of the Republican Party, Thomas Wright, was surprised at the Bennett upset.
Many Republicans wondered how it had gotten so bad—even though it’s pretty clear many of them sowed the seeds of their own destruction by increasingly ratcheting up the rhetoric and policies that have made Utah increasingly dominated by an increasingly disturbing level of conservatism. They also wondered what they could do to fix things. With the notable exception of Senator Bennett’s son, most moderate Republicans ignored the most immediate and probably viable option—getting behind the Democrat in the 2010 race, Sam Granato. Instead of showing true political courage, they cowered in fear and barely did anything for Granato—they certainly not help him raise the money to run a strong campaign, and definitely not publicly endorsing his election over Lee.
Why didn’t Republicans do this? Part of it can be put on Granato, who announced early, failed to raise early money or enthusiasm, faced a convention challenge, and gave a valiant but ultimately toothless campaign in the fall. But it is more likely these GOP old-guarders were blinded by their own ambition. Almost as soon as Lee was elected, pundits declared that he was too conservative (a point Lee was more than happy to prove true), and names started sprouting up for potential Republican challengers in 2016.
The problem, well-understood by many insiders, was the Republican caucus/convention nomination process that brought Lee to power in the first place. At that point, Old-guard Republicans faced another choice:
- Engage in another effort to prove that Utah Republicans were not as conservative as election results, policies, rhetoric, campaign fundraising, and other obvious signs indicated or;
- See that the elephant’s nose wasn’t going to get any shorter, leave the Republican party and see if it would be possible for a Democrat to challenge Lee.
I will note here that I clearly don’t know if this kind of thinking took place and option 2 was probably not considered at all.
In any event, old-guard GOPers actually believed that they could change the Utah Republican Party, get nominated somehow, and, Utah being Utah, would cruise to victory in November if only they could motivate large enough numbers of Utah’s apathetic moderates to get behind a lukewarm candidate, gather enough signatures, and then win a Republican primary election.
After gathering a bunch of specious evidence, raising a bunch of large donations from other duped Republicans and moderates, along with some clearly desperate Democratic donors and supporters, the disenfranchised Republicans launched Count My Vote.
The effort was classic Utah Republican policy—tease the public with the semblance of a broad participatory effort, but all along knowing they would have to make a deal behind closed doors that would need to be sold as a win.
So we got SB 54’s convoluted binary path to nomination. It was hailed as a success, except by—you guessed it—the new establishment at the Utah Republican Party, who have fought to nullify the new procedures. In a display of cognitive dissonance that’s stunning but not surprising. even Governor Herbert, who signed the bill, is supporting the party’s suit to stop the law.
What has happened in the year since? Have we seen a broad group of moderates empowered by this new path beating down the door to get ready to run, both against Lee and his acolytes in the Legislature? Not exactly.
- Kirk Jowers—out as head of the Hinckley Institute now cashing big checks as a lobbyist for a multi-level marketing company; he’s not running.
- Josh Romney—“sitting this one out,” apparently.
- Thomas Wright—“business and family are keeping him from running.”
- Scott Anderson—after failing to find anyone else to run, co-chairing Lee’s reelection.
- Jon Huntsman, Jr.—the former governor, supposedly a moderate loved by all; the man who pushed for Jowers to come up with ideas to fix Utah’s cratering voter participation—not running for President, not running for Governor, not running against Lee. Actually, he’s co-chairing the re-election campaign of his former General Counsel. Shocking, huh?
- Jason Chaffetz—“Mike’s our guy”
They couldn’t even drag a no-name Vivint CEO into running.
What has been the only major intra-party struggle playing out? Overstock.com CEO Jonathan Johnson says Governor Gary Herbert is not conservative enough.
And what about the option they probably never really considered? A Democrat? Jim Matheson, the best option on that side, saw the utter failure or SB 54 to really change the status quo, and decided to cash in and become a lobbyist as well.
What is left to do? It’s pretty obvious that Republicans have united behind Lee. The conservatives are already backing him. The moderates and business types are in their normal status of cozying up to an incumbent, using our normal, legal system of bribery, a.k.a. large campaign donations. No matter how much it must pain them to see it, they can only see that their strategy has failed and that Lee’s not going to be taken out in a primary or convention. And Matheson is not an option now.
So can Lee be defeated? In my opinion, absolutely! How? Well, it’s got to be from a Democrat, and that’s a whole other story, one that involves a clearly optimistic view that Democrats can fight and win in every seat.
It will also take organizations willing to back up their big talk at rallies.
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**Editorial Note: Brett Garner has provided monetary donations to Utah Political Capitol.