Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Plenty of intrigue ahead at the GOP state convention

Next Saturday, the state will witness an entertaining, enlightening — and possibly chaotic and frustrating — political event. There will be plenty to cheer and groan about by the end of this important political pageant. We are, of course, talking about the State Republican Convention.

One high-profile convention participant will be U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney. He faces very aggressive opposition — especially from state Rep. Michael Kennedy and attorney Larry Myers. Can Romney win 60 percent of the delegate vote and avoid a primary election?

Pignanelli: “A political convention is not a place where you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.” — Murray Kempton

Although most possess reserved dignified personalities, Utah Republicans can exhibit unhinged behavior during convocation. (e.g. state conventions in 2000, 2008, 2010, 2012.) Such gatherings are subject to the bizarre whims of delegates, external national issues, internal fights, etc., and often provide unexpected results.

Similar dynamics threaten the upcoming GOP assemblage. A lighter turnout in the March precinct caucuses likely causes extremist elements dominating the delegate pool. Factions are vying to change or maintain party structure. Attendees will be charged $10 for parking (the horror!), further highlighting GOP financial problems.

U.S. Senate candidates will face grumpy delegates who will have been at the Maverik Center for hours. Romney is popular with mainstream Republicans, but his opponents are well known with activists. So he will endure several ballot votes before securing the nomination. Some GOP insiders predict if the elections go too late in the afternoon, Kennedy or Meyers may capture 40 percent and force a primary.

Utahns are excited for the Jazz playoffs, but our local Republicans are equally entertaining.

Webb: The conventional wisdom is that Romney will not fare well at the unpredictable convention. Arch-conservative activists and delegates have been plotting against him for months. His delegate support will be a test of his organizational prowess. If he wins 60 percent, he’s a political genius. If he wins at least 40 percent, he’s OK. Less than 40 percent is a loss, even in the multi-candidate field.

To Romney’s credit, he handily exceeded expectations in gathering signatures to get on the ballot, using an all-volunteer army to get double the needed signatures. So, he will be on the primary ballot no matter what happens at the convention.

A number of more mainstream Republican activists are pushing for changes to the party’s governing documents to reduce power of a minority of delegates and members of the State Central Committee and to create more sensible management of the party. Will they prevail in this civil war?

Pignanelli: After hours of speeches and balloting, exhausted delegates will then wrestle with over 17 proposed amendments and resolutions to amend party governing documents.

But the rest of us can enjoy the action. For example, just reading these contentious measures is great fun. With titles like “Return to Reason” and “Give Others a Chance to Serve”, there is a guaranteed nasty fight between the old guard and rebels wanting change. By late afternoon Saturday, the number of sane people in attendance diminishes — and so do the chances for reform.

Webb: It’s going to be a bloody fracas and the reform outcome depends on how many delegates turn out (and how long they stay), whether Romney succeeded in recruiting moderate delegates, and how well delegates are educated about the intrigue and nuances of this battle for party control. With a high delegate turnout a year ago, Rob Anderson, a sensible conservative, won election as chair. Since then, he has been demonized and undercut by a minority of State Central Committee members.

Anderson allies plan to make a brave effort to bring order and sense to the party. But the convention is the home court of the far-right militants. They love to spend hours arguing over arcane rules and party procedures, making motion after motion, delaying decisions and wearing out normal people who have better things to do. They don’t represent the views of the vast majority of Utah Republicans, but their zeal and intensity gives them undue influence in this closed caucus/convention system. It will be very difficult for the majority to take back the party from the minority.

Will Utah Republicans heal their wounds and move forward, or is the antipathy so great that Democrats and other parties can capture an advantage?

Pignanelli: Because the fights are over purist ideology and party control — and not over personalities (other than Romney) — a major movement is unlikely. However, if Saturday’s contests are especially bitter (i.e. Romney is unreasonably mistreated, reform attempts become acrimonious), enough Republicans may stay home in November, potentially impacting tight elections.

Webb: It’s true that many far-right conservatives prefer purging fellow Republicans who aren’t pure enough, instead of working to elect Republican candidates. And it’s true that while the party used to attract a who’s who of Utah leaders, now most normal people run the other direction.

So, all of that should provide an opportunity for Democrats. But, really, it doesn’t. Most Republican candidates ignore the party shenanigans and run campaigns independent of the party. Most don’t need party money or organization (because not much of either is available). So Republicans will continue to dominate.