Utah GOP wrestles with party purity

Utah GOP wrestles with party purity
© The Hill photo illustration

A years-long fight over the way Utah Republicans pick their party nominees is almost certainly headed to court again after warring factions in the state party and the state legislature failed to reach an agreement ahead of a key deadline last week.

At issue is whether candidates seeking Republican nominations can gather signatures to appear on the primary ballot or whether they must compete in a caucus-convention process that allows hundreds of party activists to choose a nominee.

Supporters of the signature-gathering route believe a primary opens political competition to more Utahns, a fairer process that could lead to more centrist nominees. Supporters of the caucus-convention system, which has been a part of Utah politics since it became a state in 1896, say their system has led to higher-quality elected officials who have set the state on the right path.

Now, the convention backers — led by a powerful faction within the state GOP — have orchestrated a power play.

The state Republican Party’s central committee earlier this year revised internal party rules to require candidates to go through the convention process. Any candidate who seeks signatures to earn a spot on the primary ballot — thus bypassing the convention process — would be kicked out of the Republican Party.

“We’re fighting to protect the integrity of our party, to make sure that those who want to be our candidates truly are,” said Phill Wright, a member of the state central committee. “We’re not looking for candidates who want to be Republicans. We’re looking for Republicans who want to be our candidates.”

The new rule does not apply to candidates who have already signaled intent to file signatures to get on the ballot. Among those candidates who have already said they will submit signatures are Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Kelly names Kushner ally deputy chief of staff Romney officially files to run for Senate MORE, the leading contender to replace retiring Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchNew kid on the tech block Senate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Week ahead: Lawmakers scramble to avoid another shutdown MORE (R), and Rep. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveUtah GOP wrestles with party purity Juan Williams: Three black women could beat Trump Black Dems take lead in push to impeach Trump MORE (R).

But it will apply to two members of Congress who had not said they would gather signatures, Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopTribe clashes with Zinke on need for Mexican border wall Industry should comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule Zinke: I never took a private jet anywhere MORE (R) and Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartGOP rep: We’re going to show the CIA ‘got it wrong’ on Russia trying to help Trump Utah GOP wrestles with party purity Republicans waiting out Trump on gun control MORE (R). Both representatives hold deeply Republican seats, meaning any potential threat to their congressional careers would come from the right.

Utah politicians say the convention process can be onerous, because elected delegates represent the most active, interested segment of the electorate.

“It’s a very uncomfortable thing for an incumbent,” said state Sen. Howard Stephenson (R), who is finishing his seventh term in office. “It’s a grueling, grueling process to have to date 200 people who hold your future in their hands. And they enjoy that power, but you as a candidate have to prove that you are the real deal.”

Now Bishop, Stewart and other candidates are suddenly less sure of their path to the ballot. The rules change puts the Republican Party in conflict with a 2014 state law, known as Senate Bill 54, which created the signature-gathering pathway to the primary ballot.

That law came about after the caucus-convention process denied longtime Sen. Bob Bennett (R) a spot on the primary ballot in 2010. Now-Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support Senate, Trump clash over Saudi Arabia MORE (R) and businessmen Tim Bridgewater, both of whom challenged Bennett from the right, won the top two slots on the primary ballot.

A challenge to S.B. 54 is currently pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
“S.B. 54 provides a path where a candidate, in my opinion, who probably is to the fringe of our platform can go around our party, around our delegates, claim the mantle of Republican, but never be vetted by our party,” Wright said. “The danger in that is there’s no way for the Republican Party to have any integrity in our election process, because anyone could claim to be a Republican.”

Observers say hard-liners within the Republican Party have never accepted the signature-gathering process.

“This rule change was all about power and control. That is what the central committee is trying to take back,” said Jason Perry, a former chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert (R) who now heads the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “The central committee represents a very conservative segment of the Utah voting population.”

After the Republican Party altered their rules this year, the state legislature debated two potential fixes. One proposal would have prohibited the GOP from adopting new rules in the middle of an election cycle. The second would have repealed S.B. 54 altogether, reverting to the caucus-convention system.

Both measures died when the legislature adjourned last week, leaving many candidates in limbo over whether to gather signatures or campaign among caucus-convention delegates.
“It has been incredibly disruptive, and I think there’s a cloud over our elections in Utah. I think there’s some uncertainty,” state Rep. Mike McKell (R), the author of the measure to prevent rules changes midcycle, said of the dispute.

Adding to the complex debate, the Utah Democratic Party has said the rules change raises questions about whether Republicans still count as a Qualified Political Party under state law.

A qualified party must offer both the convention and the signature-gathering track. If a court decides to remove the GOP’s qualified status, any candidate who goes through the convention route could be blocked from the ballot.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R), whose office oversees Utah elections, has said no candidate will be booted from the ballot if they pursue a nomination through either the convention or by gathering signatures. But Utah’s nominating process is almost certainly headed back to court.

“They were very clear that some of the bylaw changes that they made were done to create standing, meaning they intentionally created bylaws to break the law to create a court challenge,” McKell said.