Gehrke: Like ‘The Avengers,' Utah’s Republican Party is at a crossroads — and here’s why it matters to you

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke

On Saturday, most of us will be mowing our lawns or going to kids’ soccer games — or just enjoying a spring day.

Meanwhile, in Orem, about 4,000 Utahns will be stuck at the Utah GOP Convention. Having endured more than my share of these gatherings, which usually involve at least an hour of bickering over rules and agendas, I say this: Pity them.

But the outcome could have profound consequences on the direction of that party and — given the GOP’s dominance — the state. So stick with me on this.

The Utah Republican Party is an organization at a crossroads. For years, Republicans have turned these conventions into a battle between a faction of purists, fighting to keep control over the party — who it nominates, how it nominates — and the 600,000-plus mainstream Republican voters in the state.

The GOP purists are infuriated by a state law that lets candidates get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures, rather than having to dance for party delegates. Or they can do both, if they choose.

The law took power from the delegates, the most strident ideologues in the party, and gave it back to voters, and that drove these folks crazy.

Maybe all this infighting would be a little less arcane if we viewed these Republican state conventions as installments in “The Avengers” movie franchise.

A few years ago, we had the GOP “Civil War,” as it was called by former Gov. Mike Leavitt, one of the co-founders of Count My Vote, the group that championed the signature-gathering path to the ballot. That convention is where Gov. Gary Herbert got heckled and booed and forced into a primary fight — then crushed his opponent by harnessing the almighty power of the voters.

Last year was “Mitt-finity War,” in which Romney finished behind former state Rep. Michael Kennedy among the Republican delegates, then trounced Kennedy in the primary.

Setting the stage for Saturday: “Endgame.”

The fringe Republicans have been dealt a series of defeats, most notably by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to review a federal appeals court decision upholding the Count My Vote compromise.

This wasn’t unexpected by reasonable people, but, again, these aren’t reasonable people and they had really put all their chips on the justices invalidating the law.

And this is why Saturday matters. The delegates will choose a new chairman. Rob Anderson is leaving the role, and I would imagine not soon enough, from his perspective.

The right wing army has investigated him, censured him, tried to drive him from office. Interns who worked at the party offices complained they were berated by the party secretary, Lisa Shepherd, who demanded access to Anderson’s email account.

More than choosing a chairman, though, the delegates will decide if the party is ready to rebuild — or if they want to continue the fight.

The main contenders for chairman are former state Rep. Derek Brown, a lobbyist who was encouraged to run by the governor, and Phill Wright, a general in the war against signature-gathering who works for Dave Bateman, the tech entrepreneur who bankrolled the battle.

(Courtesy photos) Candidates for chairman of Utah's Republican party. Derek Brown, Phill Wright, Chadwick H. Fairbanks III, Sylvia Miera-Fisk

So the convention presents a crossroads. Delegates can choose to try to mend the damage done to the GOP or spend the next two years shredding whatever credibility they have left.

Part of me hopes they choose the latter. For the years Republicans have been waging this internal warfare, they have hurt themselves more than Democrats ever could. Major donors have turned their backs, the party’s money has dried up, resources have been diverted and the Republican brand has been tarnished.

The financial plight has been so bad that Herbert had to pony up $18,000 so the convention could have a voting system.

Republican parties in Colorado and Nevada took a similar course, nearly obliterating the GOP in those states. In Utah, Republicans will remain in power in spite of, not thanks to, the party.

But the more that voters pick candidates based on principles as opposed to whether they have an elephant or donkey on their signs, the better.

So light the match. Let it burn.

Except there is a risk in that notion, too, because Utah law still gives parties considerable clout in the candidate selection process and, in a state where 95 percent of general election races are not competitive, those nominating contests ultimately dictate who governs the state.

So what happens Saturday matters.

Delegates will either decide — at their peril — that they want two more years of dysfunction as a small group of partisans keeps clawing to maintain power.

Or they’ll decide it’s time to move on, rebuild and put political power in the hands of the people, where it belongs.