In the 2010 election, the conventional wisdom was that Senator Bob Bennett of Utah lost his seat because of the rise of the Tea Party and their ideological extremism. Most media accounts went something like this: “The Tea Party is so extreme that even a conservative stalwart and influential senator such as Bennett isn’t safe.”
The real story (as I wrote in 2010) was that Bennett lost because of Utah’s unusual party institutions. A well-organized minority can catch people off guard through the caucus/convention system and deny the incumbent the opportunity to even have a primary. This is what the Tea Party groups did to Bennett. If Bennett had been able to make it to a Republican primary, he would still be Senator. End of story.
If you are a political junkie, you may have heard that Senator Orrin Hatch seems to be avoiding the fate of his colleague. Hatch pumped millions into the race prior to the state convention. He came a few dozen votes shy (of about 4,000 convention delegates voting at the April 21 convention) of claiming the nomination outright and avoiding a primary, but there is only a small chance he will lose in the June contest. After that, barring something like a massive stroke, he will be re-elected.
The national media narrative going forward seems to be one of two varieties: 1) the Tea Party is waning in influence; 2) incumbents are still effective at spending their war chests to fight off challengers. Both of those are true to an extent, but there is more to the story. Two other factors have been critical to Hatch’s re-election.
First, the influence of the LDS church was critical. In the weeks preceding the primary, the church announced over the pulpit and through the media that it was encouraging all members to attend the March caucus meetings of their party and declaring that no church meetings or events should be held during those times (the two major parties held their caucuses on two different days in the same week). In years past the caucuses were completely under the radar; they were poorly advertised and attended mostly by the politically active (indeed, going to a caucus was almost the definition of politically active). This low visibility was why the Tea Party was able to manipulate them in 2010.
But this year the caucuses were bursting at the seams. Hatch was able to bring out a lot of supporters, but many Mormons went simply because they felt they were supposed to. Mormons already go to a lot of meetings as part of their religious observance. Going to a long, tedious caucus (and, believe me, they are long and tedious) isn’t something that most citizens are eager to do. But Mormons also have a tendency to do as they are told. They attended (and suffered) in large numbers.
The LDS church likely didn’t favor the types of politicians coming out of the 2010 elections, particularly with respect to immigration issues. The church has been quite progressive on immigration, and the 2011 legislative session saw a fairly acrimonious battle over immigration, with (mostly Mormon) Tea Partiers wanting to push through Arizona-style legislation and the church being their primary opponent. Rather than further engaging on the issue with Tea Partiers, the church decided to mobilize the center of the party. All they had to do this was say, “Go.” Issue solved.
Second, I have noticed a lingering sentiment that what happened to Bennett was unfortunate, even amongst people who have been largely pleased with the record of Mike Lee, Bennett’s successor. What I heard over and over again in talking with convention delegates was that these contests should be decided in primaries, not by an organized minority. Most Bennett supporters (and Bennett himself) were stunned by the 2010 outcome and resented that a Senator they like was ousted before most people were even paying any attention to the race. Thus, any evaluation of how strong Hatch is with respect to his opponent is incomplete without accounting for the resentment about process. Once it became obvious that Hatch was not going down at the convention, many delegates likely switched their allegiance to Dan Liljenquist, Hatch’s primary opponent. In short, the vote represents more than just support for/against Hatch.
What also gets missed in national discussion are local issues. There isn’t really a national debate about federalism. Instead there are 50 different debates. One issue that has had a very high prominence in Utah lately lies at the very root of federalism—the control of land. One of the things that differentiates Utah from, say, Texas is that Texans (or the state of Texas) controls almost all the state. In Utah, the federal government owns and controls over 2/3 of land in the state. If you live in New Jersey, odds are you don’t even know what the BLM is, but every Utahn living in or visiting a rural area knows encounters the BLM is: they are the people who control our land. The issue of “state sovereignty” was one of the most widely trumpeted issues at the state convention. This concerns not only how public lands are used (where roads are built, where recreation is allowed, where animals can graze, etc.), but it also has real implications for state finances, since many of our natural resources could be a revenue source if the land were controlled by the state.
Land issues don’t typically get much play among conservatives or libertarians nationally, though they should. That is because most of you are able to control your own land. This makes the prospects for reform dim, since the fight against environmental extremists (who would basically like to make the entire western US a designated wilderness area) needs the support of those who don’t face the issue. Imagine if someone had proposed at the Constitutional Convention that each of the 13 colonies had to cede 2/3 of their land to the federal government. Obviously, such a proposal would not have won a single vote. Yet that ridiculous proposal is the status quo in many western states. Maybe if Utahns were as obnoxious as Texans, we could change things.
A final note. Here is a name to remember: Mia Love. She came almost out of nowhere to gain 70% of the vote at the convention and will go on to face blue dog Jim Matheson in the general. Given that redistricting made any effort to return to Congress difficult, Matheson faced an uphill battle. Mia Love seals the deal. She is a young, very conservative, black woman and the daughter of Haitian Immigrants. Her convention speech was electrifying (the low-quality recording here doesn’t do it justice). It was sort of like a Republican version of Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, except she didn’t have teleprompters. Love has been all over the national news media because, as she says, she isn’t supposed to exist. But she does. I’d love to see her get a spot on the podium at Tampa.