Grassroots Strategy—Learning from a Recent Victory

After reading ColdWarrior’s excellent diary from several days back about our grassroots victory in Utah and a spectacularly irritating and disingenuous op-ed from the Salt Lake Tribune decrying the same. I started thinking about some of the broader issues about our victory Utah and what we can do to build on it elsewhere.

It is no accident that we have had two major grassroots victories in Utah recently—Jason Chaffetz’s thumping of Chris Cannon last election cycle and the booting of Bob Bennett—this cycle. As the Tribune editorial makes clear—with its breathless invocations of “smoke-filled rooms” (Not likely in the Utah Republican party, I’d think) is that (much as they hate it)—as an incumbent accountability tool, conventions are outstanding

The Tribune article calls Bennett “ a clear favorite of the Republican rank and file in public opinion polls, may well have won.” While that statement is factually debatable it’s also irrelevant—or should be.

Lets face some honest facts—most Republican rank and file voters have absolutely no clue about what is really going on in Washington—that’s not a slam on those voters—like many of us, they are busy doing their jobs, chasing after the kids, or whatever other important things take up their time—and they don’t have time to pay close attention to politics. So they see a bunch of news puff-pieces and slick campaign ads by Bob Bennett and they think he’s doing a good job. But grassroots activists know better.

The Salt Lake Tribune seems to think the whole convention process is an affront to democracy—but to my mind it’s a wonderful example of republican politics (in the classical sense) in action. Our candidate selection processes currently suffers from an excess of democracy—incumbents and anyone who can raise a bunch of money to buy fancy commercials have a huge advantage.

Rather than succumb to democratic excess, the Republican party should follow the founders’ example and build a check on the system—potential candidates should be chosen by the most committed and knowledgeable voters—the types that will show up at a caucus or convention. After they select the most promising candidates, the people should have a chance to choose between them in all of their democratic glory. As activists, we should be focusing on how to bring a Utah-type system to more states—since that is the best way of bringing accountability.

While Utah’s system isn’t perfect, it is far from just an insider’s only system (which I am not suggesting we adopt– any process we adopt should be open to any Republican voter willing to put in some time at a caucus or convention). In Utah, starting with caucuses in which ~15% of registered Republicans participated, delegates were selected to the convention. Contrary to the breathless insinuations of the Salt Lake Tribune, those voters knew darn well that they were voting to get rid of Bennett. Any reader of RedState pretty much knew Bennett was a goner the day the Utah Caucuses ended.

There are some problems (IMHO) with Utah’s system. Allowing the convention to narrow things down to two candidates is probably too much power to give to a convention if there is no incumbent running—three might be better. And 60% seems like an awfully low threshold to select a nominee without going to the general electorate. One could also envision a higher standard for incumbents (i.e. an incumbent who couldn’t break 35% at a convention on the first ballot is automatically booted). But these are details.

The central point is that, as a party, we should remember we don’t want to just throw our nomination process to whoever has been in office the longest or can run the most campaign commercials. We need to encourage activism and there should be a role for the most knowledgeable and committed voters to have an important place in the candidate selection process. If we want to take back the party, we need to change not just our candidates, but the rules of the game that are in most cases, now stacked against us.

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