A small group of hardline GOP members is pushing a controversial (and possibly illegal) change to the party bylaws because they think it helps the lawsuit against SB54, and they won't pay a political price for the provocation.
On Saturday at a "special" meeting of the Utah GOP State Central Committee, the group narrowly approved a surprise change to the party bylaws that "immediately" terminates the membership of any Republican candidate who takes the signature-only route to the primary ballot. The new rule will ONLY affect the races in CD1 and CD2 in 2018 (UtahPolicy.com previously reported it might cause U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney to lose his party membership, but that was in error).
One party member who attended the meeting tells UtahPolicy.com it's a cynical attempt to strengthen their lawsuit against SB54. UtahPolicy.com agreed not to identify the member by name. Our tipster voted against the change.
"There's a feeling among that group that they can improve their chances in the SB54 lawsuit by doing this," they said. "The thought is they are setting standards for their own membership, which will help the court case."
Basically, their argument goes something like this: The Utah GOP currently doesn't have the ability to defend their membership standards because they're not detailed in the bylaws. Now that they're spelling out that candidates will not be allowed to gather signatures and remain in the party, they hope they can prevail in court. Even though that new rule flies directly in the face of SB54, they're counting on prevailing in court.
So why just bar Republican candidates in CD1 and CD2, instead of every candidate in 2018? That's a calculated risk on the part of Republicans.
"No Republican has yet filed to run and gather signatures in those districts," says our source. "They don't think they'll pay a political price because Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart are shoo-ins for re-election. My worry is what if someone does file to gather signatures?"
The plan to only target the CD1 and CD2 races in 2018 was added later in the meeting when it became clear that the original proposal would not pass. According to another participant who spoke on condition of anonymity, the original bylaw could have affected Mitt Romney and dozens of other GOP candidates this year and might lead to an electoral disaster in 2018. More than 50 GOP candidates have filed to take the signature route to the ballot, including Romney and Reps. Mia Love and John Curtis. Putting their party memberships in jeopardy this late in the game was seen by more than a few at the meeting as a preamble to catastrophe.
There's a significant risk they're running with this gameplan. If a Republican does run in one of those two districts and opts to take the signature route, then the party will have no choice but to kick them out. If they don't, then the legal gambit they're counting on won't be valid. If they do kick the candidate out, then the party is violating state law. Theoretically, the state could decertify the Utah Republican Party, meaning NONE of their candidates will appear on the ballot as Republicans. Those same GOP candidates could be removed from the ballot altogether by the state as well, which would put dozens of GOP-held seats at risk.
According to a social media post from a private group shared with UtahPolicy.com, Utah County GOP Vice Chair, Josh Daniels reportedly said during the meeting, "Time is the issue. The change needs to happen now so the party can create circumstances for the suit. Basically, we need to kick someone out of the party and have that person still go on the ballot."
That's because the Utah GOP is a "Qualified Political Party," a designation that requires the party to allow candidates to choose how they get on the ballot, signature-gathering, caucus/convention, or both. The bylaw change breaks that designation, meaning the state could strip the party of their status.
That's an awful risky game, according to the SCC member.
"Our #1 goal as a party is to win elections. I'm afraid we're going to jeopardize that," they said.
Apparently, it's not too big of a risk for these hardliners. Dave Bateman, who has stepped up as a financial savior for the party, thinks the state will blink in this game of electoral "chicken." According to Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, who live-tweeted the marathon six-hour meeting, Bateman said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is the state's top election officer, would not decertify the Utah GOP because he has "higher aspirations" politically, and that move would be a bridge too far. You should really take the time to read the whole thread from Saturday. It's amazing.
Wow! Just wow... I'm almost speechless. Dave Bateman, the presumptive savior of the #UTGOP, just took a not-so-subtle swipe at Lt. Gov. by mentioning "higher aspirations" as why he shouldn't/couldn't weigh in on the Party's QPP or RPP status with a proposed "purity test". pic.twitter.com/SnOm3rgQH5— Shawn Milne (@ShawnMilne) February 24, 2018
There was one other peculiar thing that happened on Saturday. The vote to approve the controversial measure was close, with two or three votes deciding the issue. Because of that, the unnamed SCC member wondered why Party Chair Rob Anderson sent out an email urging members to not come to the meeting because of the snowstorm.
"None of the federal delegation was there. No elected officials came. Attendance was low. If two or three more 'no' votes showed up, we wouldn't be having this discussion."
In a Monday night email to party members, Anderson said the "minority of the Utah Republican Party" passed the changes over the objections of the party's legal counsel.
"This bylaw clearly violates the UTGOP Constitution, the State of Utah election laws, as well as the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution wherein all are guaranteed 'equal protection under the law,'" he wrote.
Anderson says he met with the House Republican caucus on Monday. Sources within the caucus tell UtahPolicy.com that House Speaker Greg Hughes blasted party members who "want to change rules in the middle of the game."
Anderson says he is committed to following Utah's election laws and protecting the candidates who are running for office in 2018.
"I know this situation is frustrating to many of you (as has been conveyed to me by the significant number of emails and phone calls I have received). We will get through this together."