The Utah Legislature is over, but politics isn’t taking a break. For the first time in memory, the candidate filing deadline occurred during the legislative session, followed soon after by precinct caucuses. We explore the intrigue as the election season launches and candidates scramble for support.

With media attention mostly focused on the legislative session, the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, many people were barely aware that Republican Party precinct caucuses were held last Tuesday. How will the caucuses impact convention, primary and general election contests?

Pignanelli“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”  — Pericles (430 B.C.)

If history is an indicator, the elements exist to foster delegates intent on disrupting the status quo. A good comparison is the 2010 election season, which bred a host of bellicose delegates. Now, as back then, we have a Democratic president suffering in the polls, an unpopular Congress with internal struggles between moderates and left-wing extremists, nervousness about the economy and aggressive right-wing media. This is a nonpresidential election year without major pushes by community organizations toward citizens to attend party caucuses. Compounding this factor is the early date.

These elements guarantee that the most actively engaged citizens with a specific agenda — of either party — were in attendance. Individuals who care about politics but were diverted by other activities may not learn about the caucuses until they are completed.

More than two-thirds of the candidates filed a declaration to collect signatures. Such statements annoy strong supporters of the convention system. Thus, the conventions could produce numerous primary contests. More importantly, intense battles inside conventions may push some candidates to adopt more extreme positions that could cause problems in the primary and general elections.

Regardless of any historical precedents, 2022 delegate machinations promise to be interesting and possibly disruptive to current policy configurations.

Webb: Party caucuses used to be the major political event kicking off each election year. But now they are relatively low-key because candidates can gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot. That means hundreds of thousands of voters get to choose their party nominees instead of the relatively few caucus attendees and the delegates they elect. This is a good thing for Utah politics. 

However, caucuses are still important, and delegates selected by attendees tend to be motivated and serious political activists. Because of their political passion and zeal, they have significant influence and politicians still wisely seek their support. I salute their commitment and enthusiasm. However, I don’t want them, alone, deciding for everyone else who gets on the ballot. All primary election voters ought to have a say in that, including those who are not able to attend caucus meetings.

Utah’s current hybrid candidate nomination system works very well. Citizens must remain wary of extremist efforts to return exclusively to the old caucus/convention system. That would exclude hundreds of thousands of voters from having a say in who represents their party as candidates in the final election. 

Over 300 Utahns filed for office by the end of last week. Many powerful incumbents are facing intraparty challenges. Why?

Pignanelli: Utah Sen. Mike Lee and our members in the House of Representatives are encountering challenges from fellow Republicans for the party nomination. The personality or individual policy preferences of the incumbents is driving these candidacies.

An unusual number of high-profile members of legislative leadership will be fending off fights inside their party convention or in a primary. Despite a successful session, general frustration with overall legislative deliberations, and not personalities, seem to be the factor behind these confrontations.

Webb: Citizens’ lives have been disrupted over the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting dictates of political leaders. Great concern and dissatisfaction also exists about the direction of the country and political dysfunction in Washington, D.C. All of this uncertainty and unrest has motivated citizens to seek political office.

While no politician is ever completely safe and should never take his or her position for granted, I expect most incumbents will be returned to office.

Some prominent Democrats are endorsing independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin. Does that give him a chance of winning against the GOP nominee (most likely incumbent Sen. Mike Lee)?

Pignanelli: It is increasingly difficult to dismiss McMullin. He is raising money. Volunteers gathered enough signatures for ballot placement. His bipartisan support suggests an unusual competitive feature. But the momentum behind the Republicans this year, and Utahns’ reluctance to elect independent candidates, remain tremendous advantages for Lee.

Webb: McMullin has little chance of winning, even if he gets some Democratic support. In general elections, Utahns come home to their political parties. McMullin is more of an opportunist and gadfly than a serious candidate. He couldn’t win as a Republican, so he abandoned the party for an independent run. He’s embracing policy positions that make liberal Democrats happy.

Still, Lee shows some vulnerability. He faces some solid Republican challenges for the nomination. He needs to run the best campaign of his life.