Saturday's state Republican Party convention, in combination with next month's primary election, could well be called the real political events in Utah.
That's because the state is so overwhelmingly Republican that for many legislative, state and federal races the GOP convention and primary decide the winners. November's final elections are just a formality.Am I nuts in saying this? Consider:
No Democrat has won a Utah governor's race in 16 years or a U.S. Senate election in 20 years. The last Democratic state auditor we had was Sharp Larsen in 1970, the last Democratic treasurer was Linn Baker in 1980.
Yes, we have a Democratic attorney general today, Jan Graham, and had a Democrat in the office before her.
And there's Democratic Rep. Bill Orton in the 3rd Congressional District, and up until two years ago Democrats held the 2nd District since 1986.
But the Utah House hasn't been Democratic since 1976, the state Senate hasn't been Democratic since 1978.
So, Saturday's GOP convention is an important political event this year - although it's likely few Utahns will pay much attention.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, will win automatic nomination. He's not opposed within his party in the 1st Congressional District. GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt will prevail. A couple of Republicans have filed against him but have no hope. Leavitt gave a five-minute speech at the Salt Lake County Convention last week. Talk about feeling confident. Name one other politician up for re-election who gives a five-minute convention speech.
The real races for Republicans this year are the 2nd Congressional District race (seven candidates), the 3rd District race (six candidates) and the attorney general race (three candidates). There is no U.S. Senate seat up for election this year.
Former FBI agent, now CPA, Todd Neilson has taken up the cause of slamming Merrill Cook in the 2nd District GOP race. You figure one of the Republican candidates would go after Cook.
Neilson really hammered Cook a week ago. But Neilson's complaints against Cook don't look as bad as Neilson first claimed. Neilson says Cook violated federal election law by working with an anti-light rail group. Cook says the group endorsed him and ran an independent phone bank calling GOP delegates because they believe in his record of light rail opposition.
In any case, it appears that Neilson and other candidates may have violated the fine print of FEC regulations by not putting their campaign names on advertising materials and billboards.
All this is loud noise, however. What Neilson really wanted to do was draw the public's and delegates' attention to the fact that Cook jumped from the party and ran as an independent against Republicans for eight years.
Cook rejoined the Republican Party this year, running for a seat for which he finished third as an independent in 1994. Cook has spent millions of dollars the past 10 years running for office.
That has at least gotten his name known among voters. He finished way ahead in an early Deseret News/KSL poll in the 2nd District race this year because of the name identification that comes with a decade as Utah's political gadfly.
Cook says the obvious: His greatest challenge is in Saturday's convention. If any group won't forgive him his independent ways it would be state delegates. If he loses Saturday, Cook says he'll stay in the Republican Party and support the eventual GOP 2nd District nominee.
For political insiders the GOP convention will be a fascination to watch. For the first time there will be multiple ballots and as the weaker candidates fall out in the 2nd and 3rd District races it will be interesting to see where delegates go on the next ballot.