Utah GOP refuses to erase possibly illegal bylaw that could knock it and its candidates off the ballot

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2016, file photo, mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Layton • A vocal minority of Utah GOP leaders managed Saturday to preserve a possibly illegal bylaw that will boot out of the party any candidates who gather signatures to qualify for the ballot — instead of qualifying only through its traditional caucus-convention system.

That bylaw threatened to knock the party and its candidates off the 2018 ballot for not allowing the dual path to the ballot mandated by state law. Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson avoided that by declaring the bylaw illegal and refusing to oust any candidate. That led conservatives to try to remove him, and he chose not to seek reelection.

Also, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox had said back then that regardless of any party action, he would certify to the ballot anyone who used either legal ballot-qualifying method. Some GOP conservatives at the time openly hoped that would lead to another lawsuit over whether the state or Republicans determine who can represent the party on the ballot.

The party’s State Central Committee (SCC) voted 68-40 on Saturday to erase the controversial bylaw — but that 63% majority fell just short of the two-thirds majority required by party rules to change bylaws. So it remains.

“That helps the party control who represents it. … It may lead to a lawsuit or lead the Legislature to revoke” election laws that GOP conservatives dislike, said Dave Bateman, an SCC member and the multimillionaire who covered most of the party’s costs of unsuccessfully challenging the dual-path law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

New Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown isn’t worried that the bylaw will decertify the party from the ballot — as Utah Democrats have contended it should for flouting state law.

“We’ll work with the lieutenant governor’s office to make sure we do what we need to do so that doesn’t happen,” he said. “We still have time. It’s still an open question, and we’ll continue to work through it.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) New State Party Chair Derek Brown speaks at the Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday May 4, 2019.

He notes the SCC is expected to consider other bylaw changes on the topic at its next meeting Dec. 7. But he added that he will not ignore the bylaw or declare it illegal as his predecessor did.

Bateman and Brown said they also doubt the Legislature — with its Republican supermajority — would allow the party to be decertified, and also would take action needed to prevent it. Bateman said that could include revoking the dual-path law.

But Brown said the party will not push for that. “Instead, our focus is going to be: How do we drive caucus turnout? How do we make sure more people are aware of it? And how do we make the caucus system work — and incentivize legislator to go through the caucus system?”

Actions Saturday continue years of squabbling between GOP conservatives and moderates over the 2014 passage of SB54. That law was a compromise to stop a ballot initiative that threatened to dump the party’s traditional caucus-convention system for a direct primary in which all candidates would qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures.

That law allows candidates to use either or both the convention system or collecting signatures.

Conservatives hate SB54. They contend it weakens the role of conventions, which are dominated by conservative delegates. They say conventions allow delegates to vet candidates more thoroughly and allow those with less money to compete by targeting a few delegates.

As SCC member Peter Cannon said Saturday, “Our primary voters are always less acquainted with candidates and issues than the candidate-elected delegates are. … Our Republican Party should not invite candidates who pursue a less-informed method of nomination from less-informed voters.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Delegates during the national anthem at the Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday May 4, 2019.

GOP moderates, however, contend that conventions do not represent mainstream party members because they are dominated by far-right delegates selected at often lightly attended neighborhood caucuses.

SCC member Lesa Sandberg said only four people attended her local caucus, including her and her husband. “That’s not true representation. … I do not want to disenfranchise other Republicans” by eliminating candidates popular with the mainstream at convention.

For example, ultraconservative Chris Herrod defeated more moderate John Curtis at a 2017 convention for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat — and under the old system would have been the party pick. But Curtis had also gathered signatures to appear in the primary, which he won easily before going on to win the general election.

Other signs of delegates not being in tune with overall GOP voters were that both Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert finished second at Republican conventions but went on to win landslides in their primary and general elections.

Fights over SB54 also created financial problems for the Utah Republican Party. Its SCC — also controlled largely by conservatives — pursued expensive legal battles against it. Meanwhile, businesses and party moderates stopped donating for worry their money would go to that lawsuit.

Brown told the SCC on Saturday that he hoped the party would move away from infighting, and instead focus on upcoming elections.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, made a similar appeal in some opening comments before the SCC’s 4½-hour meeting.

“Let’s unite," he said, “around that which unites us.”