Primary Confusion

Utah, Washington Consider Changes in Nominating

Posted March 15, 2004 at 6:24pm

The nominating systems in two Western states could be up for significant changes in the weeks ahead.

In Washington state, all political eyes are trained on Gov. Gary Locke (D), as they wait to see if he will accept the state Legislature’s plan for a new primary system.

In Utah, meanwhile, where several competitive Republican races are on tap this year, state GOP leaders are weighing whether to scrap their primary in favor of a binding convention.

Washington state lawmakers adjourned last week after approving a “top two” system to replace the state’s unconstitutional blanket primary, in which voters selected candidates from any party on one ballot.

Locke made it known that the Louisiana-style system was not his first choice, but never said that he would veto the bill.

He has until April 1 to decide and has given no indication that he will act before then, his spokeswoman said Monday.

The top-two system advances the two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, onto the general election.

“We will now take a hard look at the bill before deciding on a course of action,” Locke said after the session ended.

In a concession to the political parties — which hate the top-two, or Cajun, system — the Legislature built in an escape hatch, in case the plan is also ruled unconstitutional. The parties’ successful suit against the state to eliminate the blanket primary has not run its entire course and party leaders are expected to challenge the Cajun system too.

In that case, a “modified Montana” plan would immediately take effect.

Voters could voluntarily register with a party, thereby selecting from its slate, or they could choose to remain independent. Independents would have to select one party’s slate or another.

“The modified Montana system would be a superior choice for our state’s voters,” Locke said in a statement earlier this month. “It maintains voter privacy and choice and avoids the tremendous uncertainty that would result form adopting the Louisiana system.”

Democratic and Republican party leaders have already said that if the Cajun system takes effect, they will not participate.

Instead, they will choose their respective nominees through caucuses and nominating conventions.

Republicans already took the first step to that end last week when they caucused across the state to select delegates for county and legislative district conventions.

Washington GOP Chairman Chris Vance said the state can still avoid cutting primary voters out of the winnowing process by thwarting the top-two plan.

Under Washington law, Locke could strike the Cajun provision, leaving the modified Montana portion of the legislation to become law, Vance said.

Speculation is that Locke will do so, Vance said, but no one knows for sure.

Also, the courts could strike down the Cajun system as well, leaving the Montana plan intact.

Both Vance and his Democratic counterpart have said they would be satisfied with the Montana plan.

While Washington’s primary upheaval is likely to be resolved soon, Utah Republicans have thrown their system into flux.

A proposed rule change set to be decided at the May GOP nominating convention could leave primary voters out in the cold.

If delegates agree to the change, Republican gubernatorial and Congressional candidates will be selected at the nominating convention instead of during the June 22 primary.

Currently, a candidate who gets 60 percent delegate support at the convention becomes the nominee. If no one candidate reaches that threshold, the top two move on to an open primary.

Two major Republicans, former state Rep. John Swallow and venture capitalist Tim Bridgewater, are vying for the right to take on Rep. Jim Matheson — possibly the most vulnerable House Democrat in the country — in the 2nd district.

Swallow edged Bridgewater out in the primary to be the 2002 nominee, and lost to Matheson by just 2,600 votes. But if the delegates select the nominee, the outcome of the Republican fight could be different than it would be if it was settled by the larger pool of primary voters.

Likewise, Rep. Chris Cannon has two GOP challengers in the 3rd district. Usually, incumbents automatically get the nod but under different rules, things could change.

Cannon was forced into a 1998 primary by state delegates, who gave one of his challengers enough votes to get on the ballot.

And the governor’s contest could be interesting if it were settled on the convention floor.

Currently eight Republicans, including the interim governor, are vying for the party’s nod.

Conventional wisdom holds that nominating conventions tend to benefit candidates from a party’s extreme wing.

In this case, a moderate such as Gov. Olene Walker (R) could be in trouble, as the conservative wing of the party is likely to run the show, Donald Dunn, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, told the Deseret Morning News last week. Walker, who is in her 70s, became governor several weeks ago after then-Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) resigned to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency.