Sunday, February 1, 2015

Utah Republicans Leaning Toward 2016 Caucuses Over Primary

The Utah state legislature convened this past week, and with that opened the small window in which legislators have to act on decisions regarding the Beehive state position on the 2016 presidential primary calendar. Yes, there are probably other, maybe even more pressing, matters they will deal with. However, where the primary calendar is concerned, Utah is one of those states that could serve as a problem to orderliness with which the calendar finalizes over the course of this year.

Elections law in Utah provides legislators with a number of options with regard to the presidential primary. If they collectively choose to appropriate funds for it, the state could hold what the law calls a Western States Presidential Primary.1 That contest is scheduled for the first Tuesday in February, a date non-compliant with national party rules. Legislators could opt to either fund the contest as is for February, provide the funds but change to a compliant date, or not fund the contest at all. If no appropriations are forthcoming, the state parties can utilize the regular fourth Tuesday in June primary for other offices.2

That the state parties have some recourse in all of this is an important factor to consider here. No party in Utah or elsewhere is forced into using a state-funded primary. Most do because the alternative is putting up party money to pay for party-run primaries or caucuses. Those are resources state parties tend to either not have or want to use elsewhere. There are, however, occasional trade-offs that parties may consider. Often state parties opt for caucuses in lieu of a primary because the state party has less control over the primary electorate than a caucus electorate. Stated slightly differently, state law calls for an open or closed primary when the state party would prefer the opposite: to either contract or expand the electorate (see Meinke, et al. 2006).

This is the position Utah is in to some extent. The parties have the ability to close the primary to just partisans according to the law, but only in a presidential primary. In a regular primary, independents can choose which party's primary in which to participate. There is a conflict between what the law and some in the Republican-controlled state government want and what the consensus within the leadership of the state party desire. Much of this dates back to the quirky caucus/convention system that helped Tea Party-aligned Mike Lee defeat sitting Senator Robert Bennett in the 2010 Republican Senate nomination race in Utah. All told there are factions in the Utah Republican Party that want different things out of the nomination process.

Even though the presidential nomination portion of this is not really wrapped up in the fallout from the 2010 caucuses/convention process, the Utah Republican Party has signaled that it will select and allocate delegates to the 2016 national convention through a caucuses/convention process, opting out of the state-funded presidential primary. The state party can exercise more control over who participates as well as when the precinct caucuses will initiate the process. The latter point makes the state legislative calculus on funding and timing the presidential primary mostly moot.

That does not mean that there will not be changes made to the primary system in the state legislature. In fact, at the same time that Utah Republican Party chairman, James Evans was saying the party would use a caucuses/convention system, Representative Jon Cox (R-Ephraim) was talking about those primary changes. Cox was the legislator who, in 2014, authored and shepherded through the state House a measure to shift the presidential primary voting online and to move that primary ahead of Iowa on the calendar. The bill died in the state Senate, but the idea did not die. Well, the provocative Iowa-challenging part seems to have seen its day pass, but the online voting aspect did not. Cox has a bill in the hopper already concerning online voting and that could serve as a vehicle for changing the non-compliant February date of the presidential primary in Utah (or another bill could be introduced to that effect).

What remains to be seen is whether those changes if passed and signed into law would entice the Utah Republican Party back into the state-funded presidential primary option. The party has not necessarily raised concerns over the date of the primary or online voting (though it seems open to including the latter in its caucuses process). The issue over who can participate remains, not in the presidential nomination process, but in the nomination processes for other offices. The presidential nomination portion is only affected to the extent it occurs simultaneous with other nominations processes.

For the 2016 presidential primary calendar, though, news of potential Utah caucuses adds another variable to the mix, but greatly lowers the odds of Utah being a calendar troublemaker this time around. State parties tend to be more protective of their delegations and most play by the rules as such.

1 The law was originally passed in the late 1990s with a regional primary in mind, but the law has never really been exercised as intended. The thought was that other states -- Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, etc. -- would hold concurrent contests with Utah in much the same way that southern states are planning on a Deep South/SEC primary for 2016. As it happened, Utah ended up going it mostly alone in subsequent cycles. And that is fine under the law. There is no guidance with respect to how many other or what other western states must participate in the Western States Presidential Primary for Utah to be able to participate.

2 Utah Republicans used the June primary in 2012. However, given changes to the RNC delegate selection rules accommodating an earlier national convention, the primary's fourth Tuesday in June date would not be compliant with the rules either. That makes the June primary a less attractive option for the state parties.

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