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.