The job pays nothing. It requires hard work. It demands maneuvering in a minefield between warring Utah Republican moderates and conservatives.
But 14 candidates are still running to become vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party — and another 10 had been in the race but withdrew. The GOP State Central Committee is slated to elect someone on Saturday to replace Joni Crane, who resigned to run for office in Uintah County.
“Who wouldn’t want that job?” jokes Utah Republican Chairman Rob Anderson.
He says the large field consists mainly of people “who want to enter the fray” in the ongoing GOP civil war. “Whether they admit it or not, they are probably disposed to one side or another,” and hope to help that side win an extra edge.
It’s “the elephant in the room” in a race among GOP elephants, one of the candidates, Spencer Hall, says in a campaign video.
Squabbles are centered on a 2014 election law, SB54, which allows candidates to qualify for the ballot either through the traditional caucus-convention system and/or by collecting signatures.
Conservatives contend the law diminishes the role of convention delegates and tilts the nomination race in favor of big-money candidates. Moderates say a dual-track to the ballot offers more choice and results in nominees who better reflect the will of all Republicans.
The best-known candidate for vice chairman is James Evans — the former party chairman whom Anderson defeated last year by contending Evans had nearly bankrupted the party with ongoing lawsuits seeking to overturn SB54.
Evans insists that he is not seeking payback against Anderson — who alienated conservatives by once unsuccessfully trying to halt the lawsuits against SB54 that Evans initiated.
“After a lot of encouragement by party members, I decided to throw my hat in the ring because there is a sense the party is off track,” Evans says. “There is a lot of protracted division,” and Evans says he can help heal it.
Evans adds he can help the party return to practices that are “transparent, fair and allow everyone to debate their issues passionately.”
This party leadership election comes after the recent state GOP nominating convention lasted nearly 12 hours as conservatives used rules to delay proceedings — resulting in hundreds of delegates leaving before final voting on candidates.
Senate candidate Mitt Romney — who angered many conservatives by also collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot — finished second in delegate voting and faces conservative state Rep. Mike Kennedy in a June 26 primary.
Crystal Hovey was among the big field running for vice chairwoman, but says she withdrew as part of a move by some conservatives to come together to stop Evans’ campaign. While she says they like his past record of defending the caucus-convention system, “he’s too liberal on other issues…. We want a true conservative.”
She threw her support to Kera Birkeland, and encouraged other conservatives to drop out and rally behind her. Birkeland is a the Morgan County GOP chairman and a member of the central committee — and made headlines at the national GOP convention when some delegates for Donald Trump told her “she should die” for supporting rules changes that may have prevented his nomination.
Birkeland said in an email she is “a strong supporter of the caucus-convention system,” and is all for continuing lawsuits to protect it. “I feel we should continue the fight to preserve our freedom of association.”
But, she adds,”We also need to find ways to come back together as a party…. We need to remember our common ground, and our mutual goals. We need to regain one another’s trust and friendship.”
At the other end of the local GOP political spectrum, Wade Miller says he’s running for vice chairman to protect the current dual path to the ballot.
“The caucus system disenfranchises the rank-and-file membership of the party,” he said in an email. “This outdated system that most states have done away with should also be sent out to pasture.”
Among other candidates still in the race are: Cody Adams; Jeff Allen; Richard Curtis; Douglas Dickson; Chadwick Fairbanks; Tony Graf, Jr.; Michael Isom; Ben Stanley; Karece Thompson; and Roderick Threats.