Lawmakers may bring out the ‘big guns’ to get the Utah GOP to back off a controversial new bylaw

Actions taken by the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee on Saturday is illegal, says a Utah GOP House member who opened a bill file Tuesday to make changes to state law to accommodate that action.

Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, an attorney, told that a bylaw adopted in a special CC meeting “violates state law; violates federal law; and violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” 

That bylaw prohibits Republican candidates in the 1st and 2nd Congressional District from gathering signatures to get on the ballot. If a Republican running in one of those two races does use the signature path to get on the primary ballot, they would have their party membership revoked.

The move by the CC is specifically designed to provoke a confrontation with the Utah Elections Office over SB54. The small group of hardline Republicans behind the bylaw are vehemently opposed to the signature route to the ballot, and they’re daring the elections office to take action against them for cutting off that path for candidates in CD1 and CD2. 

U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, both R-Utah, will almost assuredly take the caucus route in their re-election bids in CD1 and CD2, respectively, so it won’t put them at risk of being kicked out of their party.

With the GOP intentionally violating the SB54 statute, the state could either kick all Republican candidates off the ballot this year, or they could make those same candidates appear on the ballot without a party affiliation. The CC is betting that the elections office, which is run by Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, won’t do anything because it could hurt his chances in a likely run for governor in 2020.

That game of chicken is too much for some legislative Republicans. 

McKell asked leave of the House Tuesday morning to open a bill file aimed at that CC action.

As of now, there is no bill text.

McKell said legislative leaders would meet with Cox, the state’s official election officer. Based on what Cox tells them, Republican lawmakers intend to take action, in some manner, before they adjourn March 8, to deal with the CC’s action.

What that bill will contain is unknown at this point, but legislative sources tell that lawmakers are ready to bring out the “big guns” to get the CC to back off their quixotic quest that may imperil dozens of Republican officeholders. 

Right now, the Utah GOP is registered as a Qualified Political Party (QPP). Under state law, that means candidates get to pick which paths they use to get to the primary ballot: signatures, convention, or both.

The CC’s bylaw change would disqualify the Utah GOP as a QPP. State law does not address what happens when a party that registers as a QPP changes the rules in the middle of the game and no longer meets QPP requirements.

Sources tell that one idea under consideration for the yet unseen bill is to demote a party that violates the QPP provisions to a Registered Political Party (RPP), another designation under SB54. Candidates for an RPP can only use the signature route to the ballot, with much lower signature thresholds.

If lawmakers were to approve such a law, it would mean that the CC’s bylaw change would block any convention-only candidates from the primary ballot, which is the exact opposite of what the CC is trying to do — for they want all candidates to only get on the ballot via convention delegates’ votes.

Also unanswered, is how long a party that is dropped from a QPP to an RPP would have to remain in that category. That’s another issue that could be addressed in McKell’s bill.

The issues being discussed by legislative Republicans may seem draconian, but there are some on the Hill who say the state party’s CC has finally gone too far in their fight against SB54. No matter which side of the issue they may be on, pro-signature or pro-caucus, they see as untenable an intentional move by a small group of party zealots that could endanger their electoral future.

The politics McKell is facing are daunting.

]There are just seven working days left before the 2018 Legislature ends at midnight next Thursday. That’s not a lot of time for McKell to get his bill through the House, a body that hasn’t been too friendly toward the SB54 compromise since it passed in 2014. There have been multiple attempts in the last several Legislatures to either gut or cripple the law. On the final night of the 2017 session, the House passed an outright repeal of SB54, but that measure died in the Senate.

If McKell can get the House on board, it’s a good bet that the Senate will follow suit, is told. 

If Republican Gov. Gary Herbert ultimately signs such a measure, it will turn up the heat on the CC, who will suddenly be facing a situation where their beloved caucus/convention system would no longer be valid for their party.

The stakes in this game of electoral chicken are about to get much more serious. Lawmakers are hoping the right-wingers on the GOP Central Committee will blink.