Live from Utah, the passion gap

 

This is just a wild guess, but I'm betting that you haven't been paying much attention to what happened the other night in Utah. Probably because you rarely spend time thinking about Utah.

But there was a noteworthy Republican primary on Tuesday in Utah, an ostensibly local affair that provides us with yet more evidence that the GOP establishment is in serious trouble this year with its grassroots voters.

We've seen this pattern already in 2008. Witness the March special election in Illinois, where a Republican congressional candidate backed by the GOP establishment lost to a Democrat in a traditionally Republican district. Witness the May special election in Louisiana, where a Republican congressional candidate backed by the GOP establishment (even Dick Cheney showed up) suffered the same fate in a traditionally Republican district. Witness the May special election in a deeply-red district in deeply-red Mississippi, where the same thing happened again.

In each of those races, the Republican grassroots was ill-motivated to fly the party establishment banner. Call it the passion gap.

The Utah rebellion on Tuesday night took a different form. This was a Republican primary, pitting six-term congressional incumbent (and GOP establishment favorite) Chris Cannon against a rookie challenger, Jason Chaffetz. Cannon had all the purported advantages, including an endorsement from President Bush (Utah is one of the few remaining states where Bush retains more than a smidgen of popularity), endorsements from Utah's two U.S. senators, and roughly $750,000 to spread across western Utah. Chaffetz, by contrast, had maybe $175,000. He had no paid staff, no money for polling, no big-shot endorsements, and no experience on the stump. His main claim to fame was that he kicked footballs for the Brigham Young University team somewhere back in the '80s.

But Chaffetz had a strategy: he argued that Cannon was not sufficiently conservative. He charged that Cannon had long been soft on illegal immigrants, and noted that Cannon (just like Bush, and John McCain) had fought for a guest-worker program that would allow illegals to stay in the country. He assailed Cannon for supporting Bush's "No Child Left Behind Law," which broadened the federal role in local school systems; and for supporting the Bush-backed drug prescription law that expanded the federal Medicare program.

Chaffetz won in a landslide, with roughly 60 percent of the vote.

The collapse of Cannon's grassroots support, the dearth of enthusiasm for the GOP establishment incumbent, can best be measured this way: Two years ago this week, when Cannon was challenged from the right in a GOP primary, by a different candidate, he survived by drawing 33,000 votes out of 60,000 cast. This time, however,  he drew only 16,000 votes out of 40,000 cast. This time, in other words, the most ticked-off grassroots conservatives dominated the turnout.

The '08 candidate who most needs to heed these results is the GOP establishment's titular leader, John McCain.

Taken together, the results in these four red congressional districts, in Utah, Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi, clearly demonstrate that the Republican base is ill-enthused and angry. Chris Cannon has been ousted in Utah in part because he sought reforms that would keep illegal immigrants working in this country - the same stance that has landed McCain in deep trouble with the Republican base.

I'm not suggesting that McCain would lose Utah to Barack Obama. Hardly. But if a GOP establishment candidate can be toppled by a landslide in Utah, what does that say about the mood of the Republican grassroots nationally? The latest poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg finds that, among self-identified conservatives, only 58 percent currently say they will vote for McCain in the general election. That's about 30 points lower than where McCain would like to be.

Unless McCain can seriously narrow this passion gap, he will plummet in November.

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Speaking of gaps, check out this tale of two Democrats...

Here's Michael Dukakis, the presidential nominee of 1988: "I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

Yet here's Barack Obama yesterday, discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to ban the execution of child rapists: "I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old is a heinous crime (for which) the death penalty is at least potentially applicable."

Just as the Democrats have dumped the issue of gun control as a political loser, they no longer dare to oppose capital punishment as a matter of principle. Notwithstanding the very real possibility that 2008 will be a Democratic year (thanks to the tanking economy and Bush's serial failures), the fundamental Democratic shift on those two hot-button issues is a fresh reminder that, at least in some key respects, the national zeitgeist has indeed moved rightward.