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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) James M. Evans was elected Saturday as chairman of the Utah Republican Party. Here he speaks during the GOP state organizing convention at the South Towne Expo in Sandy.
Utah GOP again rejects reforms to nomination process

Thousands of Republican faithful reject candidate-selection reforms, install first black leader in history.

First Published May 18 2013 01:04 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:32 pm

The Utah Republican Party again rejected a series of reforms to the party’s nominating process in a move that could trigger a threatened ballot initiative to overhaul the system for picking candidates.

Count My Vote, a group made up of several prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, argued the current system puts too much power in the hands of a small group of delegates, depresses turnout and leads to radicalization of Utah politics.

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The group had said if changes weren’t made, it would push for a ballot initiative — likely by gathering signatures on a petition — that would give candidates an alternative to going through the delegate process to get into a primary election.

At the Utah Republican Party State Convention on Saturday, GOP loyalists once again rejected any reform proposals, in particular a measure that would have required a candidate to get more than two-thirds of the delegate vote to avoid a primary.

The nearly 2,600 convention delegates also elected James Evans as the new state party chairman — the first African-American to serve in the position — replacing outgoing chairman Thomas Wright.

Republicans also approved a resolution opposing the Common Core, a set of education standards that conservatives believe are "un-American and inferior" and is an attempt by Washington to control Utah’s education system.

Opponents argued the resolution was misleading and unnecessary, while supporters blasted the federal government for meddling in a state responsibility.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who lost to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson by 768 votes in November, formally announced she would again challenge Matheson in 2014.

Nomination battle • But the party’s vote on the nominating reforms was the lighting rod of the day, and the vote to reject the changes left the Count My Vote group few alternatives to a ballot-initiative drive.

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"It may require that kind of action," said Rich McKeown, Leavitt’s former chief of staff. "I think we’ve kind of recognized that there was potential that we’d have to move forward, so we’ve worked with language and we’ve worked with potential donors … but our hope was always that there would be other ways to change the system."

McKeown said Count My Vote leaders will meet Monday to discuss their next step.

A poll of Republican caucus-goers commissioned by the state party found that 77 percent favored raising the threshold from 60 percent to 66 percent of the delegate vote or higher for a candidate to clinch the nomination without a primary election.

But delegates like Arturo Morales of Orem said that the party shouldn’t cave to threats.

"The only reason for raising this threshold is meeting the demands of an elite group of Republicans and some Democrats," said Morales, who argued that instead of buckling under, the party should formulate a strategy to fight an initiative.

Lisa Shepherd, a delegate from Provo, said raising the nomination threshold would protect incumbents and make rural parts of the state, with fewer delegates, "flyover counties."

Republican National Committeewoman Enid Mickelsen, a former member of Congress, argued to the contrary that the party made a mistake more than a decade ago when it lowered the threshold from 70 percent, since it made it easier for incumbents to win the nomination without a primary.

Wright worked for months trying to broker a deal and shepherd the changes through the party’s decision-making process, warning that if the party didn’t act, the initiative would go forward and, if it gets on the ballot, would pass, gutting the caucus-convention system. He said threats from the Count My vote group that they would run the initiative if changes were agreed to left delegates feeling like they were being "blackmailed" and made to "bow down" to party elites. As a result, the changes didn’t get fully debated on their merits.

New leaders• Evans won a convincing victory as the new Utah Republican Party chairman, capturing nearly 60 percent of the vote in the three-way race that pitted him against Wasatch County GOP leader Aaron Gabrielson and Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly head Marco Diaz.

Evans, who owns the Checkline chain of payday lending stores, served as Salt Lake County chairman from 2005 to 2009 and touted his experience and record as a reason for electing him to the state party post.

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