The group of Republican power brokers behind the Count My Vote initiative drive to overhaul how Utah picks its candidates for office has reported raising $70,000 in its first handful of donors, with more money in the pipeline.
All of the cash disclosed to date comes from four deep-pocket donors and at least two have a record of supporting Democratic candidates, causing some to question the motives and allegiances of the Republican Count My Vote organizers.
The group reported receiving two donations of $25,000 each from venture capitalist Dinesh Patel and life sciences investor Gary Crocker, and $10,000 each from Omar Kader, who owns a Middle East consulting firm, and Bruce Bastian, a founder of WordPerfect.
Bastian has given heavily to Democratic candidates and gay-rights causes, while Kader has donated thousands to Democrats.
“It seems they’re making themselves vulnerable to Republican Party leaders and activists who would note they’re being heavily funded, at least initially, by donors who have donated only to or extensively to Democratic Party candidates,” said Connor Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute.
Boyack said Democrats want to see a Republican Party that is “less tea party-ish,” and reforming the nominating process is a way for them to achieve that goal.
Crocker was a major supporter of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and has given tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, as well as a $2,500 donation to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Scott Howell.
Patel, likewise, has made more than $100,000 in contributions almost exclusively to Republicans, although he did give money to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson.
Rich McKeown, an organizer of the Count My Vote effort, said the initial report only reflects the first contributions, and much more has been raised or promised from other supporters. All told, the group is planning to raise at least $1.5 million.
“It is probably a check-is-in-the-mail kind of thing,” McKeown said. “This is really, truly a bipartisan deal.”
The Count My Vote group is organized by former Gov. Mike Leavitt, McKeown, who was Leavitt’s chief of staff, and Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
They are aiming to increase voter participation by moving away from Utah’s current system, which allows delegates selected at neighborhood meetings to nominate most candidates at a state convention.
The Count My Vote group has expressed concern that the delegates represent the fringes in both parties and, as a result, candidates tend to cater to the extremes.
They are currently researching whether to move ahead with a plan for direct primaries in the state, or a hybrid system, where delegates could still endorse a candidate, but that candidate may have to face a primary if another competitor gathers enough signatures.
McKeown said, at this point, there is no alternative for the group but to proceed with gathering signatures to put the change on the 2014 ballot.
“Because the Legislature hasn’t acted … and the parties won’t — they had the discussion but didn’t — the initiative is all that’s left,” he said. “We’ve been quite encouraged by the people who have helped fund this, so we feel like the impediments are out of the way and we just need to go for it.”