Exclusive: Inside the secret meeting at the governor’s mansion that saved Utah’s signature path for candidates

Gov. Spencer Cox assembled a group of powerful politicians to find a path forward.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The last weekend of this year's state legislative session, a group of powerful politicians gathered in the Utah governor's mansion, shown in this 2016 file photo, to see if they could work out a compromise on Utah's system for nominating candidates. No deal was reached and a bill to essentially return the nominating power to the GOP state convention delegates died without a final vote.

Editor’s note: This story is available to Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.

On the final Saturday of the 2021 Utah Legislature, several top Republicans met at the governor’s mansion to discuss the latest attempt to undo the 2014 legislative compromise that gave candidates a route to the primary ballot by collecting signatures.

Less than 48 hours earlier, SB205 from Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, advanced on the Senate floor. The bill was initially voted down but brought back for another vote, which moved the proposal forward. It now was just one vote away from passing the Senate and moving to the House, where it stood a good chance of being approved.

The House in 2018 voted to repeal the signature-gathering law on the final night of the session, but the bill died when the Senate refused to take up the bill.

There were nine people in attendance at the governor’s mansion, according to several sources with direct knowledge of the meeting. They spoke with The Tribune on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to publicly comment on the private gathering.

Joining McCay was Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. Also present were Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the original architect of the 2014 compromise known as SB54; former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a leader in the Count My Vote effort to create a signature-gathering path to the primary ballot; Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown and Jon Pierpont, Cox’s chief of staff.

Cox called the meeting in the hopes that he would be able to find a solution to the near-constant conflict over whether candidates should have the ability to skirt the party convention system for nominating candidates.

Sources describe the conference as collegial and constructive, with Cox clearly in charge.

Wilson made an oblique reference to the meeting during an interview on the “Utah Politics” podcast saying, “We had a meeting on Saturday at the mansion about a somewhat controversial issue, and he stood up with a whiteboard and a marker and took charge of the meeting. It was great.”

As for the result of the meeting, Wilson added, ”The issue went away, so it’s not something we’re going to be doing.”

That’s true. SB205 sat undisturbed on the Senate’s reading calendar for the remainder of the session.

So what happened?

Simply put, there wasn’t a lot of common ground to be found that day.

The discussion never came close to any sort of compromise. While representatives for Count My Vote were open to possibly making a deal, there were worries that would not be enough for opponents of SB54. There was a significant amount of pushback against finding common ground with those who wanted to kill the signature path. It was argued that no compromise would satisfy the opponents of SB54, who are only interested in a full repeal. Instead, some felt that any agreement would embolden opponents to fight even harder.

It’s not clear what kind of compromise, if any, was proposed. But it’s clear that any discussion of an accord was short-lived.

It did not escape those in attendance that 18 Republicans had voted to advance McCay’s bill. But Leavitt and other representatives from Count My Vote had been working hard to convince legislators to reconsider their position. Apparently those efforts had been successful enough that no further attempt was made to pass the bill in the session’s final five days. Leavitt’s lobbying efforts were so aggressive that some Republicans in the Senate were said to be actively dodging his calls as they knew what he wanted to discuss.

Rather than an outright repeal of the law, McCay’s bill attempted to create another option that allowed a party to nominate candidates at convention as long as they raised the threshold for forgoing a primary election to a two-thirds vote of the delegates. Failure to secure the two-thirds vote would send the top two vote-getters to a primary, but do away with the multi-candidate primaries seen under SB54.

McCay argued his bill did not do away with the signature path as it was still an option that political parties could choose to use. Practically, it accomplished what many hard-line members of the Utah Republican Party had dreamed of doing since the original compromise passed in 2014 — making the caucus/convention system the only path for candidates in the GOP.

Utah’s nomination system is unique in that the political parties play an active role in nominating candidates. Most other states relegate the parties to a supporting role, not the group that selects who is on the ballot. Prior to the advent of SB54, Utah was the only state to nominate candidates through a convention system.

Had SB205 passed, and assuming Cox didn’t issue a veto, it almost certainly would have touched off open political warfare. It’s likely Count My Vote organizers would have launched a referendum to overturn the law. Were that successful, the group could have then turned to a new initiative to either do away with conventions entirely or make it easier for candidates to make it on a primary ballot with fewer signatures.

What’s clear is the seven-year-old accord’s prospects for long-term survival continue to be as tenuous as they have been from the start, even after defenders of the old system fought SB54 all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court only to be rejected.

Despite the voting public’s embrace of the new system and its increased reliance on primary elections, Republican delegates view it as an unacceptable infringement on the party and its most loyal adherents’ power to pick candidates. And those party activists continue to hold a lot of sway with lawmakers.

Behind the scenes, SB54 supporters feel vindicated by the 2020 primaries, which featured three highly-competitive Republican nominating contests — including the four-way race for governor — that drew overwhelming turnout.

Coming out of the clandestine meeting, though, there was an acknowledgment that changes to the process are needed, perhaps lowering the number of signatures needed or instituting some sort of runoff in multicandidate primary elections to ensure majority support for the winner. But, whether such reforms have a chance in the Legislature is very much up in the air.