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Utah’s GOP convention: Should mainstream conservatives be concerned?

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, talks to reporters as he arrives for the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Last Saturday, Utah Republican delegates held their organizing convention to elect party officers. But they also captured national attention for loudly booing Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Last Saturday, Utah Republican delegates held their organizing convention to elect party officers. But they also captured national attention for loudly booing Sen. Mitt Romney. They also booed Gov. Spencer Cox. This gathering and its results deserve a close look.

In addition to the catcalls, delegates narrowly rejected a resolution to censure Romney, and they elected a slate of inexperienced leaders while rejecting those endorsed by elected officials and establishment Republicans. Should mainstream conservatives be concerned about these developments?

Pignanelli: “A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness.” — Robert Heinlein.   

The organizing convention for a political party is akin to youngsters at the ice cream buffet. Parents are vaguely aware of the various condiments but usually shocked at what is brought back to the table.

The unruly behavior of the crowd offended many, but such is the nature of most delegates ... within both parties. These activists are often pleasant individuals, but when part of a herd, they excel at embarrassing comportment. Unfortunately, this outrageous behavior is a longtime fixture. Gov. Mike Leavitt, Rep. Jim Matheson and Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett were booed at past party conventions. 

Cox is receiving accolades across the political spectrum for his competence, compassion and a resounding economy. Yet, many convention participants rewarded this excellence with derisive shouts.

The good news is the GOP convocation further solidified beliefs that extremists on either side should not be given full control of determining candidates in a general election. They care more for policy purity than electability and actual results.

Children can be forgiven for unhealthy choices selecting desserts. Conversely, immature delegates demonstrate a need for a permanent “timeout.”

Webb: This convention exemplified all that is wrong with the caucus/convention system. Only half the state delegates bothered to show up. Six long hours after the convention began, when the final vote was taken for leadership, another 500 delegates had gone home. Many of those remaining were the most extreme activists. And they decided the party leadership.

For many GOP delegates, you’re a pretty brilliant person until you get elected to something. And then you suddenly become an idiot. It has become a rite of passage for the state’s best leaders to be booed at a Republican convention.

As I’ve written previously, I disagreed with Romney’s votes to impeach former President Donald Trump. I thought it helped Democrats and divided the party. I understand why many Republicans were disappointed with him.

But I agree with Romney on at least 80% of the issues facing the nation. Following the counsel of Ronald Reagan, I’m not going to let the 20% disagreement nullify the 80% agreement.

After all, my wife only agrees with me 51% of the time (especially when I want to buy a new tractor), but she still likes me (I think). There are much better ways to communicate one’s differences than to shout down a speaker at a party convention.

Carson Jorgensen and Jordan Hess were perceived as long shot candidates for chairman and vice chairman, but bested opponents by a wide margin. Insiders are already wondering if they will continue the crusade against SB54 and signature gathering for placement on primary ballots, thereby distracting from fundraising and organizing to elect Republicans. Is this a real worry?

Pignanelli: Strident extremists do not understand or even care that the priority of a political party is to elect candidates. Intensive fundraising and strategic messaging are critical components. Party leaders who ignore or even foster ideological tests and controversies over minutia quickly doom the organization to debt and irrelevance. Both parties endured these difficulties of narrow exclusionary vision in the last two decades.

Outgoing GOP Chairman Derek Brown is the gold standard of party leadership. (His Democrat counterpart Jeff Merchant is equally capable.) These partisans are focused on fundraising, technical support and messaging to a broader spectrum of voters. New state and county party officials would be wise to heed their guidance.

Webb: I’m told the current party budget is about $40,000 a month. Unless Jorgensen and Hess can do some very quick damage control and make amends with the Republican establishment, the party is going to be broke and dysfunctional.

The reality is, it’s very difficult to raise money for a political party. Most people would rather donate directly to candidates. Contributions from elected officials and a handful of wealthy individuals keep the party going.

With Cox, Romney and many in the business community irritated at the party, and with the new leaders lacking relationships with GOP donors, good luck with fundraising. And if the party goes after SB54 and the hybrid nomination process, establishment Republicans will use a vehicle like the Reagan Roundtable to organize and support candidates, bypassing the party.  

Here’s some free advice to the new party leadership: Try to broaden the party appeal, not narrow it. Welcome all Utahns who want to affiliate with the party — conservatives, moderates, independents and one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people-eaters (Google that). Don’t drive people away with litmus tests or ideological barriers. And let all Republicans choose party nominees.

Can Democrats take advantage of this confusion?

Pignanelli: The opportunity for Democrats is directly proportional to their willingness to establish a comfort level for moderate Republicans. This would require a demonstrable and consistent separation from many of the policies posed by national progressive Democrats. It has been done before — but not in recent history. 

Webb: Unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans don’t really need the Republican Party to win. The usual party functions of grassroots organizing, fundraising, get-out-the-vote, survey research, etc., can be done by candidates themselves, especially if the party is dysfunctional and broke. 

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.