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Saturday, April 21, 2012
My Post-Convention Report

Miscellaneous notes on today's state Republican convention, including the exciting, the intriguing, the wacky, and the weird.

I left for today's Utah Republican Party state convention in Sandy at about 7:30 a.m., and I was home before 10 p.m. I could have left after casting my last vote and learning the result, but, as I told my precinct when I ran for state delegate, I don't leave these conventions until they're over. And after we adjourned, I still had to hang around and chat with a few fellow delegates.

Here are some miscellaneous notes, impressions, and a few bits of analysis of the experience, but, I think, little or no personal advocacy of any candidates. (I've done enough of that here this week.) I won't try to report all the results; you can read that elsewhere. And I won't list all of the motions from the floor. Most were coherent and sensible, or at least germane -- but quite routine, unlike a motion or two I'll mention below.

Venue, Etc.

We were at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy, which in most respects was just fine. However, the food is better at the Salt Palace, and the wireless Internet is far better at the Salt Palace -- as in, actually functional.

State Party Chair Thomas Wright ran the convention expertly and with a certain charm. This was very widely appreciated.

The electronic voting was a big hit with the delegates. Without it, we'd have had to work late into the night -- or perhaps through the night. Or the weekend.

Here's an improvement. Two years ago, several delegates arrived too late, after credentialing had closed. The chair asked for unanimous consent to suspend the rules and allow them to be credentialed and participate (and, importantly, represent their precincts). A handful of delegates objected, so it didn't happen. The objections were widely regarded as very petty by numerous delegates. This year, one delegate found herself in a similar plight. This time the motion to suspend the rules was presented as requiring a two-thirds vote. It passed, and I was aware of no nays.

The delegates were eager to move the agenda along, but not at the expense of the candidates or the process. For example, various items of non-urgent party business were postponed by motion and vote to the organizing convention in 2013, but motions to dispense with or shorten candidate speeches before rounds of voting failed badly, even though the hour was late.

Delegates, Candidates, Primaries

Senator Orrin Hatch very narrowly missed the 60% vote needed to avoid a primary -- narrowly as in, about three dozen votes in nearly 4,000. Two years ago, it was widely believed that his candidacy wouldn't survive today's convention at all, so today's result was a pretty good win, if not a complete one. The conventional wisdom (no pun intended) is that he'll fare better in a primary than at convention. This is probably true. The situation begged comparison with Senator Robert Bennett's defeat in the 2010 convention, but this was a different year; a different set of delegates; a different, more conservative incumbent; a different and weaker field of challengers; and a much better campaign by the incumbent. (See this interesting Fox News report about Hatch's campaign to win delegates.)

It's not over by any means, and Dan Liljenquist, who will share the primary ballot with Hatch, is publicly optimistic. But it's hard to see how the convention wasn't his best shot to beat Hatch.

The delegates in 2012 seemed older than in 2010, and calmer and better behaved. There seemed to be a sense among many of them that the adults had arrived to regain control of the party, after what happened in 2010. I think a sense that this was needed helps account for this year's record caucus attendance, too. For what it's worth, former Senator Robert Bennett received three ovations, when he received a party service award and spoke briefly. He himself was very gracious, and I enjoyed his quip about how much he enjoys "the freedom of not having to ask Harry Reid for permission to leave town."

Gary Herbert managed to escape a primary. Unsurprisingly, Morgan Philpot was the last of the more-conservative-than-thou challengers to be defeated.

John Swallow faces a primary with Sean Reyes for Attorney General. Swallow won today about 55 to 45, but he's in trouble. The momentum and (in my view) the substance are with Reyes, whose name recognition will improve a lot more than Swallow's between now and the primary. And there's a sort of good-old-boy vibe about Swallow, which didn't seem to sit well with a lot of delegates, and may not sit well with Republican voters at large. Swallow is current Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's anointed successor, which contributes to the good-old-boy vibe and may hurt him in the end -- especially after something Shurtleff said later in the convention, which I'll mention below. This will be an interesting primary to watch.

Rep. John Dougall came out of nowhere in the last several weeks to send multiterm incumbent Auston Johnston into a primary race for State Auditor. Introduced and endorsed by both the president of the Utah Senate and the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, Dougall finished on the short end of a roughly 55-to-45 vote. But I think momentum and the incumbent's good-old-boy vibe might have a similar effect in this race as in the Attorney General race. My money's (figuratively) on Dougall, if he can figure out how to excite voters about a race for State Auditor.

At past conventions Congressman Jason Chaffetz has been something of a rock star. He still won his nomination today on the first ballot, but applause for him was less energetic than before. Maybe that's because the delegates were older and less inclined to applaud. But there also seems to be a growing sense that he's in the wrong sector of the workhorse/show horse spectrum -- if that's not just my own misinterpretation of the data, based on my own thinking in the matter.

Later in the day, it became clear that there is a new rock star to take his place: 4th District Congressional nominee Mia Love. (She'll really be a star with Republicans if she beats Jim Matheson in November.) When it was time for the last round of one-minute speeches, before the last ballot in her race, Mark Shurtleff took most of Carl Wimmer's time, and ended by urging delegates to vote for a proven, experienced legislator instead of "a novelty." The delegates were not amused. I may have heard a little booing then, but mostly we applauded her even more vigorously when she spoke after that. Looking at the numbers from the last two ballots, I think Shurtleff may have cost Wimmer a primary. If the insult gets any traction, it may hurt John Swallow, too. I envisioned Swallow texting Shurtleff just after that, pleading, "Don't mention my name at all today, and for at least a week."

Drama and Punishment

Second Congressional District delegates and candidates were in a different hall at the convention center for their first round of speeches and voting in that race, while the main hall worked through the other three congressional districts. So a lot of us didn't know where the fireworks came from, when they erupted in the speeches prior to the second ballot (after they returned to the main hall). This made Second District delegates the most popular people in the hall after the convention, because the rest of us wanted the scoop. It also led to a delegate offering a much-appreciated (but ultimately out of order) motion from the floor, asking for an explanation. He called it a "What the Hell?" motion, to the general delight of the convention.

As far as I have been able to reconstruct what happened, the last Second District candidate to speak in the first round spilled the beans on several candidates who had made some sort of back-room deal to take down the favorite. The plan seems to have included the release of some supposed dirt on the favorite a day or two before the convention, when there would be no time for him to respond. When this came out, several delegates withdrew from the second round. One had his microphone shut off briefly for misconduct as he began to expand on the theme that another candidate was something on the order of a "bald-faced liar." And the other three districts' delegates were consumed with curiosity, not to mention, ahem, awakened.

In the end, I think the delegates punished the offenders by shifting enough votes to the favorite, Chris Stewart, that he avoided a primary.

There may be a pattern here. Delegates apparently punished Shurtleff's candidate for Shurtleff's slur against Mia Love. They may have administered a similar punishment in this case. And one of the implicated candidates here was one of the third parties who probably cost Tim Bridgewater a primary victory against Mike Lee in 2010, with a vicious robocall the day before the election, endorsing Bridgewater. Add this to what I gather -- from listening to numerous delegates -- was a serious backlash in favor of Orrin Hatch, because of FreedomWorks' scurrilous attacks, which were mostly based on lies about and distortions of his record . . .

I'm beginning to think voters and delegates are growing more sensitive to slimy (or even unfair) tactics and more willing to punish them at the polls. These attacks have had a devastating backlash, and -- if the attacks must exist -- I think a good backlash is wonderful.

Oddities and Minutia

I'm still mulling the passionate declaration of one candidate, who insisted, "We need to do what needs to be done." If I recall my academic years correctly, this masterpiece of circular logic is called a tautology. But I mostly call it a waste of words and an unfortunate substitute for substance. When you have one minute, or even six minutes, to make your case, you can't afford to waste words. On a similar note, I observed that in most cases candidates whose speeches just articulated conservative principles did very poorly. Candidates who translated those principles into specific policies did far better; delegates favored candidates with a clear sense of what they're going to do and how. This is a good thing.

I loved the "What the hell?" motion I mentioned above, even if it was out of order. For what it's worth, the closest we heard to cursing from the mouth of an actual candidate was "heck." Only in Utah.

Just before the vote for one seat on the Republican National Committee, a delegate asked the chair if one of the candidates was the same person by that name who had recently sued the state party, when she didn't get her way on a particular point. The chair conferred with other officers for a minute before declining to answer and ruling the question a breach of decorum. By then, I think, a lot of the new delegates had already picked up from experienced delegates that this individual has even more of a history against the party than that. In the voting, the delegates did not look favorably on a candidate with a history of not playing well with others.

This comment by a delegate from the floor led to another delegate's later motion, that there be more instruction for all delegates on the rules of decorum -- not a bad idea, though there was some instruction already, and generally good decorum. But she also proposed that there be some sort of sergeant-at-arms at future conventions to stop people before they breach decorum. (Because you can't unring a bell -- my metaphor.)

Is it just me, or did she move that the Party provide a sergeant-at-arms with psychic powers?

There was a motion from the floor to move the 2013 convention to St. George or thereabouts, which inspired some enthusiasm among the delegates. The chair promised to explore the possibility, but was uncertain if St. George has the facilities. My thinking is, if we're going to St. George, let's do it in February or March, when it's cold further north, and have maybe a three-day convention instead of one, meeting just a couple of hours each day, if even that . . .

A state delegate serves for two years and two conventions: one nominating convention, like today's, and one organizing convention the following year, to elect party officers and to handle resolutions, bylaws, and such. I realize that chairing conventions is just one of the state party chair's duties, but after today, I think Thomas Wright has my vote, if he runs again next year.

Parting Thought

Finally, there are some flaws in the delegate/convention system of nominating candidates, but it also has some strengths. In nearly every race I've seen in county and state conventions, the delegates  have granted fringe candidates an early exit. Delegates are still well to the right of Utah Republicans generally -- less so this year -- but their tolerance for wing nuts and dabblers is quite low. And many, probably most, delegates work very hard to learn about the candidates. I spent about 50 hours in my delegate role before the convention. If the average is only half that (which I doubt, but I'm being conservative, tee hee), then the state delegates combined spent about 100,000 hours finding and promoting the best candidates. Add that to the convention, about 50,000 hours, and these people who were elected in their neighborhoods to choose the party's candidates spent 150,000 hours working on it. Even after all that, where there were multiple strong candidates in a particular race, in most cases the voters still get to choose between the top two in a primary election.

I expect I'll be reporting on next year's organizing convention here at the blog, at least for the sake of those who elected me. I wonder, should I have mentioned before the caucus vote that I have a history of going to these organizing conventions and voting for Satan? I thought about it, but there just wasn't time to do it justice in a one-minute speech.

David Rodeback comments (4/22/2012):

I made about half a dozen tweaks in this post, correcting typos, clarifying a murky construction or two, and changing "filthy liar" to "bald-faced liar" for the sake of accuracy. No real substantive changes, though.

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