This Thanksgiving season we give thanks to pundits, voters and the courts for making a normally sleepy municipal election the most unpredictable and entertaining in recent memory. In addition, the fun of last Tuesday — including federal Judge David Nuffer'sSB54/Count My Vote decision — has ramifications for next November. After all, the Big One is less than a year away, and it’s never too early to speculate.
A year ago, it appeared all but certain that popular Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Beckerwould win a third term. What happened, and should incumbents be nervous in 2016?
Pignanelli: “Yes, you need substance in politics — but your style also says something about how you arrive at conclusions.” — Charles Kennedy
Donald Trump and Jackie Biskupski are as different as two people could possibly be (thank goodness!). However, these two share an amazing ability to tap into a frustrated angst plaguing their target audiences and succeeding despite contrary predictions from the “experts.”
Because there were no major policy differences, this very intense election was all about the leadership style of the incumbent, an obvious issue for many residents. The Becker campaign tried to force a discussion about Biskupski’s credentials, but it was ham-fisted and failed.
Current incumbents with high approval ratings need to reassess their true strengths and weaknesses or face a Becker-like situation in 2016. Furthermore, Biskupski taught fellow politicos that correct messaging through social media and retail politics is strong enough to overcome any traditional television commercial effort.
“The Donald” and “Mayor Biskupski” formally served notice that electioneering in America and Utah has dramatically changed — in many ways for the better.
Webb: As the saying goes: “Be worried. Be very worried.” No question, voters are restless, cynical and unhappy — and susceptible to populist “outsider” rabble-rousers who rail against the status quo and make big promises. Politicians can take nothing for granted. The presidential race is chaotic in both parties. A back-bencher rebellion toppled the speaker of the U.S. House. A lot of grass-roots voters are poised to vote for anybody but the incumbent.
This mindset isn’t quite as strong in Utah. But Becker was still the victim of some of this sentiment, and also suffered from normal three-term voter fatigue. In reality, Becker and Biskupski differ more in style than substance, and the city will do just fine.
On Election Day, Judge Nuffer invalidated a line from SB54 that required political parties to open primary elections to unaffiliated voters, but upheld provisions allowing candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot. A gleeful GOP Chairman James Evans declared victory, claiming the party can force all GOP candidates to use the caucus/convention system. How does this impact elections?
Pignanelli: The judge opined the Utah Republican Party is "severely burdened” by the participation of unaffiliated voters in a primary because these individuals "do not share" their views. This is an outrageous conclusion since the GOP consistently attracts an overwhelming majority of unaffiliated voters in general elections. But Republican leaders are prevented by current law from disqualifying candidates for choosing nomination through a petition.
Webb: James “shrink the tent” Evans is trying to kick mainstream Republicans out the door and keep elitist activists in total control of the party nomination process. He is also leaping to wild legal conclusions unsupported by the facts, the law — or common sense.
The entire Count My Vote movement (in which I am a happy volunteer) seeks to expand participation in the political process, open it up to all citizens. Evans is trying to keep political power in the hands of elite activists who mistrust the masses.
He’s saying the Republican Party has no room for mainstream citizens who want to welcome independents and unaffiliated voters to support Republicans.
It is going to be really embarrassing for the party when a prominent Republican seeks to gather signatures, as the law allows, and Evans is there holding an ax in front of the TV cameras, barring entry to the election process.
Thankfully, plenty of level-headed Republican leaders, including the lieutenant governor and many legislators, will tell Evans to read the plain language of the law, upheld as constitutional by Judge Nuffer, and stop looking and acting so silly. Common sense will prevail.
Some politicos were surprised over the apparent defeat in Salt Lake County of Prop 1 (which led in the polls) and the Millcreek incorporation win (which failed last election). What lessons can be learned?
Pignanelli: Incorporation activists learned from their losses and launched an information intensive campaign that normally would bore voters, but attracted attention through clever messaging. Many politicos are claiming that Prop 1 was burdened with the bad publicity of the Utah Transit Authority. But I think the issue is deeper than just UTA bonuses. There were enough residents wondering why additional taxes are needed for transportation projects when they were already paying fees for such services. The Americans for Prosperity Super PAC aligned their witty communications of opposition with these concerns.
Webb: Millcreek is simple. It will become Utah’s newest city, thanks to a well-run grass-roots campaign that communicated effectively with voters.
Prop 1 is more complicated. It won in at least 10 of the 17 counties where it was on the ballot, including two large counties (Davis and Weber), and could still win in Salt Lake County with some 24,000 ballots yet to be counted. But Utah Transit Authority, the best-run transit operation in the country, has a big perception problem to overcome before voters will enthusiastically support more transit funding.