Gov. Gary Herbert wished aloud Thursday that the Utah Republican Party would drop its lawsuit challenging the state’s new election law, which is driving a wedge between the party’s right wing and moderates.
But he concedes that maneuvering by conservatives has probably successfully forced party leaders to proceed against his wishes — and their own.
When asked at his monthly KUED news conference if the GOP should drop the lawsuit, Herbert said, “They would be wise to do that.”
The suit challenges SB54, which allows candidates to qualify for a primary election by collecting signatures and/or the traditional caucus-convention system.
Many Republican convention delegates hate the law because it reduces their power. Moderates argue the old caucus-convention system gave the right wing, which dominates it, too much power to nominate candidates outside the political mainstream.
Despite his wish the lawsuit appeal would be dropped, Herbert said conservatives likely have boxed in new GOP Chairman Rob Anderson in a way that forces him to proceed with appeals, even though Anderson personally opposes the suit and says he has the power to drop the lawsuit.
The party’s 180-member state central committee had scheduled a debate on ending the lawsuit last Saturday. But after six hours of delays by conservatives that blocked debate, the committee simply adjourned with no vote.
Conservatives argue that left in force an earlier resolution that called for continuing the lawsuit — and warned that Anderson could be removed from his post if he tries to do otherwise.
“I don’t know that he [Anderson] should just unilaterally do it,” Herbert said Thursday.
“He’s probably wise to do whatever the central committee says,” the governor added. “I think the appeal will go forward and [Anderson] ought not intervene.”
Anderson told The Tribune earlier on Wednesday that he was still weighing options, but for now the appeal was proceeding. “Nothing has changed,” he said. The lawsuit is scheduled for oral arguments before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Sept. 25.
Some conservatives also are trying to get the Legislature to repeal SB54, but Herbert said Thursday he would veto any such move.
He said the 2014 law was “a compromise made in good faith” between supporters of the Count My Vote ballot initiative that sought to replace the caucus-convention system with an open primary and those who wanted to keep the traditional system as an option.
Herbert said polls at the time showed 70 percent of Utahns supported dumping the convention system for an open primary — and that the Count My Vote initiative likely would have passed. “We would have lost the caucus-convention system entirely” without SB54, he said.
“The disappointment to me is the divisiveness it has caused ... in the Republican Party [and] the accusations back and forth that I am more pure than you are” among those who support or oppose the law, he said.
“I have said in hindsight I wish I had vetoed SB54 just because of this divisiveness. That said, I signed it because I thought it was a good compromise.” the governor said.
He added that the expense of the lawsuit, as well as many moderates’ refusal to donate to the party for fear their money would go toward legal costs, has helped put the party $450,000 into debt.
“That’s disappointing to me as a Republican, because we should be the party of fiscal responsibility,” he said.
Anderson has been pleading with moderates to begin donating to the party again, vowing that their money will not go to the lawsuit. With that, Herbert hosted a fundraiser for the party last week that raised $106,000.
He said he will also donate much of the money he raises in his annual governor’s gala this week to help the party cover operating costs.
“We lost in court on this issue. I don’t know that we will win the appellate court, but we are just two or three weeks away” from arguments to help find out, Herbert said.
“Let’s get it through the courts, let’s see what they say and react to that.” If courts uphold it, he said, “I think that SB54 will stay as the law of the land.”
In other political news from the news conference, Herbert dodged a question about whether Sen. Orrin Hatch should retire — simply praising him and his service.
But when Herbert was asked if he would run for the Senate if Hatch retires, Herbert paused a long six seconds, and then replied, “Why would I want to take a step down?”