Dave Bateman, who likely saved the Utah Republican Party from bankruptcy, wants to continue the fight that has been splitting it apart.
That battle is aimed at quashing the state election law that allows candidates to qualify for the primary election ballot by collecting signatures and/or through the caucus-convention system.
“I don’t think the fight is over,” Bateman said Monday, even though the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month rejected the party’s legal appeal. It was the apparent end to five years of court challenges that have bitterly divided conservatives and moderates in Utah’s ruling GOP.
Because of strings that Bateman attached to his financial bailout of the party, however, the fight may not be over until he says it is.
Bateman said in an interview Monday that he is not pushing for a new lawsuit favored by some conservatives, and would not use the contract he has to try to force one. However, he said he is awaiting formal communication from the party that it has ended its legal challenges to formally release it from its debt.
“I’d be surprised if I don’t get a green light” soon to do that, he said.
Meanwhile, Bateman says he is also weighing a ballot initiative to overturn the election law, SB54, and also supports legislative action to repeal it.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and a sponsor of SB54, points to polls over the past five years showing the popularity of the law. Party leaders should respect that, he said.
“It’s the people’s ballot, not the party’s.”
How we got here
When the Republican Party’s long-running lawsuit over SB54 threatened to bankrupt the organization, Bateman, the CEO of Entrata software, assumed its $410,000 in legal debts. He persuaded lawyers to accept about 40 cents on the dollar, and he agreed to cover ongoing costs of the appeal all the way to the high court.
But the deal had one condition: The party would need to pay Bateman back if it ever ended its lawsuits without his permission or before all possible appeals were exhausted.
In a Facebook dialogue over the weekend, moderates asked Bateman if, given the Supreme Court rejection, he would now release the party from its debt.
Bateman was a bit evasive.
“Pretty sure the contract said the debt is gone as soon as the lawsuits are done! You should have the contract. Go read it,” Bateman responded.
When asked again to clearly state if he believes all lawsuits connected to the debt are now done, Bateman said, “I’m not in charge of the lawsuits. Please reach out to the [party’s] Constitutional Defense Committee on that one.”
That committee was established to make party decisions about its SB54 legal battle after state GOP Chairman Rob Anderson had sought to put a halt to the litigation because of the mounting costs and divisions it was creating.
Don Guymon, spokesman for the committee, said Monday that it has not met to discuss any further action since the Supreme Court rejection. His personal view is the full State Central Committee and a new party chairman or chairwoman who will be elected at a May 4 convention should be involved in final decisions.
Anderson, the outgoing party chairman who negotiated the bailout with Bateman, said it was clear that the appeal to the Supreme Court would end Bateman’s debt with the party, and Anderson opposes any new lawsuit. “More litigation is not the way to unify the party,” he said.
Ballot initiative ahead?
Bateman said he is “interacting with a few people to gauge interest” in possibly launching a ballot initiative to do away with the option of qualifying for the ballot by collecting signatures, and return to a strict caucus-convention system.
He had funded such an attempt last year through the Keep My Voice initiative, but it got off to a late start and was abandoned as it was falling far short of the 113,000-plus signatures required.
The move for another such ballot initiative would ask voters to sign petitions to give up their power to sign other petitions to put candidates on the ballot. Why would people do that?
Bateman argued that since SB54 was passed in 2014, “We have had consistent tax increases. I feel that is a direct result from circumventing the direct accountability that comes in a caucus-convention system” where candidates meet face-to-face with delegates.
He added that when Utah discarded the caucus-convention system decades ago, the decision was reversed after 10 years.
“I feel it is inevitable that [the traditional system] will be restored,” he said.
Arguments over SB54 likely will play a large role in the upcoming race to replace Anderson as the party chairman. One of the candidates is Phill Wright, a close ally of Bateman who works for him at Entrata and is chief of his Keep My Voice group.
Other candidates so far include former state Rep. Derek Brown, a former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee; Cache County GOP Chairman Chris Booth; and Sylvia Miera-Fisk.
SB54 has split the Utah GOP. Business groups and moderates applaud the law, believing the caucus-convention system without an alternative route to the ballot gives too much power to delegates, who tend to be much more conservative than voters.
For example, archconservative Chris Herrod defeated more moderate John Curtis at convention in a special 2017 election for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat — and under the old system would have been the party pick. But Curtis has gathered signatures to appear in the primary, which he easily won before going on to also prevail in the general election. He was easily re-elected last year.
Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert finished second at GOP conventions only to go on to win landslide victories.
Correction: Derek Brown is a former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee. The original version of the story incorrectly identified that as his current title.