SALT LAKE CITY — Four years ago, the fledgling tea party claimed one of its first and greatest victories in Utah, ousting the state's veteran Republican senator in a thunderclap of anti-incumbent anger.
Now the establishment has struck back, with a new law giving more voters a say in nominating the candidates for public office.
The measure, signed this month, amounts to a compromise in a fight to limit the influence of grass-roots activists and others bent on purging the GOP of all but the most ideologically pure.
Under the agreement, primary candidates can still be chosen, as they long have been, at party conventions, attended by just a few thousand delegates chosen at neighborhood meetings. But others can bypass delegates and appeal directly to voters if they collect enough signatures to make the ballot. Those unaffiliated with a party, a big chunk of Utah's electorate, will also be allowed to vote in Republican primaries.
The aim is the election of more mainstream, politically pragmatic lawmakers and "not just one person pushed into office by a select, small group of individuals," said Lane Beattie, head of the Salt Lake Chamber and a former Republican state Senate president, who helped broker the compromise signed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
The change will take effect in 2016, when Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party favorite who replaced three-term incumbent Robert Bennett after a raucous 2010 convention, faces reelection. Lee was not an explicit target, backers of the election overhaul say, but his provocative actions — including a leading role in last year's government shutdown — helped garner support for the change at the same time it soured voters on his performance.
"It was a subtext for some people," said Kirk Jowers, a University of Utah political scientist and cofounder of Count My Vote, the group that pushed for the new election rules. (The effort was bipartisan but Utah is in effect a one-party Republican state, so the impact will be much greater on the GOP side.)
Arcane as it may seem, the overhaul is part of a larger move by the Republican establishment to reassert itself, from Capitol Hill — where GOP leaders put an end to months of tea-party-led brinkmanship — to roughly a dozen House and Senate races across the country, where business groups and their allies are working against tea partyers to elect more compromise-minded candidates.
Frustrated by squandered opportunities to win control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, Republican leaders and many of the party's big donors are determined to play a greater role this election year in promoting candidates they consider less extreme and more broadly appealing.
In Utah the effort has gone beyond pushing individual candidates to overhauling the entire election process.
The convention system, more than a century old, rewards the most committed activists and the candidates willing to work hardest to woo them. For that reason, many were loath to give it up.
"That process served a lot of people in Utah well," said Jeff Hartley, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the state party. "A lot of them would not be in office if they hadn't had the ability to meet with 60, 100 delegates face to face and convince them they were the best person for the job."
That includes, he said, the governor, a Realtor and former county commissioner who faced a field of far better-known rivals when he first ran statewide.
But critics have long maintained that the convention system is unfair and unrepresentative. "A handful of people — just a handful of people — routinely choose candidates," former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, a co-chairman of Count My Vote, said last year in launching a petition drive aimed at changing Utah's election rules. The goal, before this month's compromise, had been to place an initiative on the November ballot.
The effort was years in the making but gained impetus after Bennett's convention defeat in 2010. A mainstream conservative and scion of one of Utah's prominent families, Bennett ran afoul of delegates for working with Democrats and his support for the financial bailout — or Troubled Asset Relief Program — that averted a 2008 financial meltdown. Convention delegates taunted Bennett with chants of "TARP! TARP!" as he went down to defeat.
By contrast, Lee showed little stomach for compromise, which appealed to his tea party supporters but antagonized many more Republicans, especially members of the business community. Lee's popularity quickly sank during the government shutdown he helped engineer and has yet to recover; the freshman senator is now viewed unfavorably by more than half of Utah voters, according to a Brigham Young University poll, with nearly 4 in 10 saying they viewed Lee very unfavorably.
Opponents of the convention system had collected more than 100,000 signatures and raised $1 million in contributions, some from Utah's biggest GOP donors, before reaching the legislative compromise that ended efforts to place a measure on November's ballot.
Lee, meantime, has modulated his tone and begun talking more about solutions and less about confrontation. "It is time for us as Americans to come together," he said in a speech last month to Utah state lawmakers.
As for the new election process, Lee told the Salt Lake Tribune, "I'll play in any system we adopt as a state."
"I intend to run," he said, "and I intend to win."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun