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Is the Utah convention system still relevant?

It’s in more ‘peril’ than ever, BYU professor says

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | May 6, 2024

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

Campaign signs for U.S. Senate candidates are displayed at the Utah Republican Party Convention on Saturday, April 27, 2024.

It was among the most memorable moments from the Utah Republican Party’s state nominating convention last Saturday.

From the moment Utah Gov. Spencer Cox walked out onto the stage, he was met with a chorus of boos, though his supporters — which would eventually represent 32.5% of the nearly 4,000-delegate crowd — did their best to compete with cheers.

Cox smiled through the boos. He was expecting this. He wasn’t the first sitting Republican governor to get booed at his own party’s convention.

It happened to his former boss, former Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016. That year, he got only 44% of delegates’ vote and was forced into a primary with his challenger, Jonathan Johnson. And yet, Herbert went on to handily win the primary with nearly 72% of the vote.

Utah GOP delegates have a track record of booing incumbents who go on to win primaries against their convention-picked challengers with commanding leads. He pointed this out in his speech to delegates through their jeers, questioning why they were booing him.

Hannah Schoenbaum, Associated Press

Robert Axson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, addresses nearly 4,000 delegates at the opening session of the party's annual convention Saturday, April 27, 2024, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.

“Maybe you’re upset that I signed the largest tax cut in Utah history,” Cox said, listing off other highlights of his administration over the boos. “Maybe you hate that we stopped DEI and ESG and CRT.

“Or maybe,” he said, “it’s something much more simple. Maybe you just hate that I don’t hate enough.”

The line drew visceral anger from many delegates in the crowd. The moment illustrated not just the deepening divide between hard core delegates and the rest of the Utah Republican party — but also a political calculation Cox apparently made headed into the convention. That calculus was likely this: If they hate him enough to boo him, he’s probably not going to sway them. And that’s OK, because he probably doesn’t need them to win.

“There are a whole bunch of people out there who want to get rid of this,” Cox told delegates during the convention. “They’re telling us that the caucus convention system has been hijacked by extremists who don’t represent the real Republicans in our state. I hope that we’re not giving them more ammunition today.”

Cox’s critics called his speech “condescending.” It prompted several county Republican parties to issue statements criticizing Cox’s comments and defending the caucus convention system as an important part of representative government and a lifeline for candidates who don’t have deep pockets that can fund signature gathering campaigns.

Marielle Scott, The Deseret News via AP

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks during the Utah Republican Party Convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 27, 2024.

However, a political science professor at Brigham Young University said the scene highlighted a growing problem for the convention process and its relevance.

“There are more questions about the caucus convention system than ever,” said Chris Karpowitz, who is also co-director of BYU’s Center of the Study of Elections and Democracy, told Utah News Dispatch days after the convention.

Given the party’s track record in recent years of nominating losing candidates when the race is opened up to all Utah Republican voters for the primary– along with rising frustration about the conduct by some of the delegates during the convention — Karpowitz said the caucus convention system is in “greater peril” today.

“I think people look at what happened at convention … and that’s not a style of politics that attracts large segments of the population,” he said. “Fundamentally, to the extent that the convention continues to nominate people who then go on to do quite poorly in the primary, I think it just raises questions about its value and its role in nominating candidates.”

The convention system’s track record

Rewind to 2016. That year, Herbert’s Republican challengers attacked him for signing SB54, a 2014 law that allows a dual path to the primary ballot via signature gathering. It’s been long hated by Utah’s most far-right conservatives and convention goers who believe party candidates’ path to the ballot should only be through convention.

Hannah Schoenbaum, Associated Press

Campaign materials for former Utah state House Speaker Brad Wilson, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat Mitt Romney is vacating, are displayed at the Utah Republican Party Convention on Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

That continued rancor with SB54 — despite many failed legal challenges — was on full display again, 10 years later, during this year’s convention. Several Republican challengers to incumbents like Cox, who had already secured their place on the primary ballot by signature gathering, showcased themselves as “convention only” candidates, relying entirely on delegate support to continue their political bids.

To this day, caucus supporters continue to argue that SB54 has empowered money-driven politicking. Signature gathering takes a lot of resources and money, they argue, so it’s giving an unfair advantage to candidates flush with campaign cash.

In 2016, Herbert gathered signatures, another source of delegate anger. That year, SB54’s sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, defended the legislation as necessary, arguing had it not been for the SB54 compromise (which preserved both paths to the primary), the group Count My Vote would have likely succeeded in a ballot initiative to eliminate conventions in favor of open primaries.

Bramble, who is retiring in December, made the same argument again this year, a decade later, telling The Salt Lake Tribune during the convention he was tired of the “revisionist history” from delegates who are still complaining about SB54. “It was clear to me and the Legislature that initiative would pass and do away with the convention system entirely,” he told the outlet. “We wanted to preserve the caucus system, and this was the only way to do that.”

But even before SB54, delegates have booed. In 2000, they nearly booed Gov. Mike Leavitt off the stage, the Deseret News reported at the time, before giving him 54% of the vote, six points shy of the 64% he needed to win their nomination. That forced Leavitt into a primary with a little-known candidate named Glen Davis.

And yet, Leavitt went on to easily win the primary with 62% of the vote.

Utah’s Republican delegates

Though it was more than 20 years ago, conservative delegates’ complaints of Leavitt sound familiar. At the time, they accused Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch of abandoning their principles, greeting Leavitt with shouts of “Democrat” and “hypocrite,” the Washington Post reported.

“Mad about gun control. Mad about wilderness. Mad at long-term incumbency. Mad, mad, mad,” the Deseret News wrote about the 2000 GOP state delegates. At the time, a Democrat, Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office.

This year, many Utah Republican delegates were again mad. Furious. With SB54 (still). With President Joe Biden and Democrats. With the federal government as a whole, really.

They’re so mad, they want to fight — not negotiate or compromise, hence why some of them booed Rep. Blake Moore, who’s been a proponent of bipartisanship. Not “disagree better,” Cox’s campaign with the National Association of Governors, meant to discourage hyperpartisanship, tribalism and other issues sowing political hatred and threatening U.S. democracy, Cox has said.

This segment of the Utah Republican Party is so fed up, they crave bold disruptors like former President Donald Trump. Trump’s brand of politics resonates so strongly with them, if a candidate mirrors his style and proudly aligns themselves with him (like Rep. Phil Lyman for governor or Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs for outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat), that appears to be all it takes to win their support.

“Those who are most invested in the MAGA-style of politics seem to be willing to follow Donald Trump wherever he goes and whatever he does,” Karpowitz said.

Utah’s GOP state delegates clearly overlap “with the most intense Trump supporters and sort of populist appeals,” Karpowitz said, and that’s a predictable outcome given “part of what Donald Trump has argued since 2016 is that there are people in government that don’t have your best interest at heart. And he has whipped up a lot of emotion about that sentiment.”

That rhetoric has deepened existing divides not just between opposing political parties, but also within Utah’s Republican Party. This year, it’s manifested starkly in the race for Utah governor, pitting Lyman supporters against Cox supporters.

“The Republican party is divided,” Karpowitz said, “and that really is coming out in the difference between the kinds of candidates who seem to be popular at the convention and the kinds of candidates who do well with Republican voters more broadly.”

Is the convention system representative?

Delegates seeth when critics say they don’t represent most Utah Republicans and the convention system is antiquated, arguing they were elected by engaged community members in caucus meetings across all 29 counties.

In the late hours of Saturday night’s convention (which ran for over 16 hours, all the way until midnight), Rob Axson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, applauded the thousands of delegates who stayed late to participate in the process. He said he’d challenge anyone who thinks the late hour was a sign of dysfunction that it’s actually a sign of nearly 4,000 Utahns willing to “do the work” and make the best decisions for their neighbors.

The Salt Lake County Republican Party, along with several other county parties, also issued statements in the days following the convention criticizing Cox’s speech, interpreting it to characterize delegates as “”irrelevant’ and ‘full of hate’ despite their honest efforts over the past two months.”

In response to criticisms of “rowdiness,” Salt Lake County Republican GOP chairman Chris Null posted Cox had called Utah GOP delegates “extremists,” and that’s why they booed.

However, Karpowitz said this year’s raucous convention didn’t exactly demonstrate a cautious, deliberate body.

“You can’t simultaneously claim that a caucus convention system is good for thoughtful, reasoned deliberation and say that what happened this year was a good example of that,” he said.

While booing has happened before, he said this year’s scorn was “surprising” in the sense that it was directed “more broadly” even toward incumbents who are extremely conservative.

“Especially when the candidates who come out of the convention have not tended to fare well in the primaries, it’s not tenable to have a system that consistently produces candidates who tend to lose, and lose badly,” Karpowitz said.

“That just underscores the fact that the delegates are not a representative sample of Republicans in the state,” he added.

When conducting a nominating process, political parties have to weigh “various values,” Karpowitz said. “Certainly thoughtful deliberation and the chance for voters to get to know candidates better is an important value. But also reflecting the attitudes and issue positions of most Republicans in the state is an important value.”

“So you want the nominating process to actually represent what most Republicans in the state prefer,” he said. “And it’s consistently not producing that outcome.”

He said the issue spans not just on the gubernatorial level, but also Senate and Congressional races.

“It’s also curiously hostile to incumbent Republicans, who tend to have really high approval ratings,” he said, pointing to the last three governors. “All of them have had remarkably high approval ratings over the course of their time in office. And they’ve done extremely well in both primary and general elections. So it seems odd, then, to use this forum as a way to express displeasure with those winning candidates.”

Karpowitz said it’s not as if Republicans “can’t disagree” with those candidates, “but it’s just not clear to me what the booing and the hectoring and this sort of behavior is producing.”

“It sends a message that this group is extreme and doesn’t reflect the values or preferences of most Republicans in the state,” Karpowitz said.

He pointed to research, including an analysis he and Jeremy Pope, another BYU professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, conducted in 2015, which concluded caucuses are “more likely to attract partisan voters. This in turn means that caucuses are more likely to select a more extreme nominee.”

“All of the research we’ve seen shows that the delegates are more extreme ideologically than voters, and the election outcomes show that too,” Karpowitz said. “So they’re manifestly not representing their neighbors very well because they’re not perceiving what their neighbors would prefer.”

The Utah Republican Party issued a statement defending the convention system and the “dedication of the nearly 4,000 state delegates who gave their time to the process.” The party also condemned “the actions of any delegate or visitor to our convention who used threats or vulgarity for any reason.”

The party said those actions “do not represent our Party or the vast majority of delegates,” and it refuted “any efforts by the media, candidates, or others to equate the behavior of a few to that of the Republican Party or other delegates.”

The road ahead: Cox vs. Lyman will be another test

Even though Lyman got the Republican nomination at convention, history shows he has a tough path to beat Cox in the June 25 primary.

“Incumbents always have an advantage,” Karpowitz said, “and I expect Spencer Cox to have that same advantage in the primary. That’s true of all incumbents.”

It was conducted before the April 27 state nominating convention, but a recent Republican gubernatorial primary poll by Noble Predictive Insights showed Cox was leading his opponents with 81% support among Republican voters. The poll was conducted from April 8-16 of 600 registered Utah Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points.

Lyman brushed off those poll results and told Utah News Dispatch that “party faithfuls” simply aren’t “big fans” of Cox. He said his campaign has conducted its own polls “and we feel really good about where we’re at right now in the (election) cycle.”

“We’re ahead of where I projected where we would be in terms of name recognition, favorability and alignment with other key politicians like Sen. (Mike) Lee,” he said. “We feel like we’re in a good position.”

Lyman acknowledged he has a steep hill to climb to beat Cox in June. “We’ve got work to do to educate voters,” he said, but argued “our message resonates. When people hear it, they’re excited about it.”

Lyman said his nomination came from “very informed and super faithful party loyal Republicans.” As for booing, Lyman said a convention is an opportunity for party members to “be expressive” and let candidates know how they feel, good or bad.

“That’s the beautiful thing about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of cheering too. So if we want to say there should be no booing, then I guess there should be no cheering and there should be no expression of anything.”

Lyman said the “booing came very naturally” when it came to the sitting governor. “Cox told them, you know, basically they don’t matter anywhere. I think they’re entitled to boo at that.” Attacks on Cox also came from his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brian King, who issued a statement Friday saying the scene at the convention showed there’s “no appeasing” the “extremism” in the Utah Republican Party.

By supporting policies that “hurt the most vulnerable and cheerleads culture war lawsuits, all to score political points and appease his base,” King accused Cox of being “complicit in empowering this chaos, and he will continue to be as long as it is politically convenient.”

Matt Lusty, spokesperson for Cox’s campaign, issued a statement Friday saying a recent Morning Consult poll showed Cox had 69% approval and only 19% disapproval among all Republican voters.

“The governor appreciates the broad support he has from everyday Republicans across the state,” Lusty said. “He is proud to support conservative victories like school choice, comprehensive pro-life protections, and the largest tax cut in Utah history.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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