GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt is paying for several telephone banks for moderate Republican legislators faced with defeat by conservative challengers in Tuesday's primaries - an act condemned by the Utah Republican Party's right wing.
It is the first time the governor has ever paid for such get-out-the-vote phone banks for GOP incumbents before a party primary, said Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela.It's the first time anyone can remember that any sitting officeholder has paid out of his own campaign accounts for campaign efforts for other party members before a primary election, although pre-primary endorsements are not uncommon.
"It continues our concern about low voter turnout Tuesday," said Varela. But she admitted that while Leavitt announced Friday that he (and House and Senate GOP PACs) are paying for a generic radio advertisement urging all citizens to vote Tuesday, part of the governor's phone bank effort is specific to individual GOP candidates that Leavitt wants back in the Legislature next year.
Conservative party leader Don Ruzicka, co-chairman of the Utah Republican Assembly, said he condemns such actions by a party leader just before a primary.
"For years we (in the Republican Party) have been told by our leaders that it is a sin to do this" - take sides before a party election or convention battle. Leavitt is "violating the party's own rules," says Ruzicka.
Ruzicka said he doesn't believe for a moment that the governor is acting alone. Ruzicka said he believes Leavitt, along with House Speaker Mel Brown, Senate President Lane Beattie and GOP state chairman Rob Bishop are acting in concert.
Not so, says Spencer Stokes, state Republican Party executive director. While Leavitt - as a state elected official - is a member of the party's central committee, there is no bylaw saying any party official can't endorse a candidate before the primary election. "The governor is not violating any rules," said Stokes.
Leavitt is spending about $4,000 to have Matrixx Marketing call "thousands and thousands" of people in five specific areas, said Varela.
Leavitt is supporting by name Sen. Dave Steele, R-West Point, and Reps. Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross; Richard Siddoway, R-Bountiful; and Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan.
The script for those calls identifies the caller as representing Leavitt and asks the person and all family members old enough to vote to vote Tuesday for the specific GOP candidate.
The calls into Utah County identify the caller as representing Leavitt and then ask all adults in the family to vote Tuesday. No candidates are mentioned in the Utah County calls.
"We decided to call into Utah County because of the number of (GOP primaries) there and how important it is to get people to polls," said Varela.
Not lost on Ruzicka and others, however, is that there are no Democratic primaries in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties this year. So anyone who goes to the polls Tuesday in those large counties will be voting for Republicans. And in many cases, the race is between a clear conservative challenger and a moderate incumbent legislator, sheriff, county attorney or commissioner. In some races, Tuesday's primary is the final election - the GOP nominee either not having a Democratic opponent or the area so Republican that practically the Democrat can't win in November.
All four legislators Leavitt is turning out the vote for are being challenged by conservatives - three of whom are endorsed by Ruzicka's Utah Republican Assembly, a party group whose goals are to get conservatives elected to public and party offices.
Steele is being challenged Tuesday by Jeffrey Ostler, a URA endorsee. Koehn is challenged by Richard Brown - who isn't endorsed by the URA but is an arch-conservative who currently serves as a Davis County Libertarian Party officer.
Siddoway is challenged by Larry Parker, a URA endorsee. And Frand-sen is challenged by Janalee Tobias, who also got a last-minute endorsement by the URA just over the weekend.
Both Varela and Stokes said it is a bit ironic that Ruzicka complains about Leavitt's actions when his and other conservative groups are doing the same thing - running voter turnout phone banks.
Ruzicka is married to Gayle Ruzicka, who heads the Utah Eagle Forum. While Don Ruzicka said the URA is not, itself, actively running phone banks for the assembly's endorsees, "other conservative groups - and their members - are." And that includes the very active and very effective Eagle Forum telephone bank - which has been known to strike fear into the hearts of legislators if their bill is opposed by the Eagle Forum.
Leavitt is paying for his phone banks. The Eagle Forum and other conservative efforts are by volunteers.
The difference is huge, says Ruzicka: Leavitt and others involved are party leaders who shouldn't be taking sides for political reasons, while his group is a grassroots volunteer effort open to anyone who accepts "true, conservative principles."
Stokes said the state Republican Party did provide Leavitt computer lists he requested. "But we do the same thing for any party member and candidate. That's not unusual at all." The state party "is not taking sides in any of these contests," said Stokes. Those lists are provided by legislative district, if desired, so good Republicans in the four GOP incumbents' district can be called directly.
Varela declined to say that Leavitt wants Steele, Frandsen, Koehn and Siddoway back in the Legislature because they historically have supported some of his programs, where conservatives in the House and Senate have not.
"They are good legislators, who serve the people well," she said.
Pointing to his belief that Leavitt and GOP leaders are clearly playing favorites this primary election, Ruzicka said Rep. Don Bush, R-Clearfield, another recent URA endorsee, has a strong challenger from a moderate Republican. Bush is challenged by former legislative staffer Andrew Jeppson.
But Bush isn't getting any help from either Leavitt or the party, said Ruzicka. In fact, Bush's House district is in Steele's Senate district, so Leavitt's phone bank callers could be endorsing Steele and Bush at the same time.
Ruzicka charges that even the generic radio ads sponsored by Leavitt and the state Republican Party aren't running in Bush's area. "Don's getting no (party) help at all because they (Leavitt et al.) don't want him back," said Ruzicka.