Bob Bernick’s notebook: Republican lawmakers face off against ‘Area 51’

Not known for their wise decision-making, the dissident group inside the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee crossed a bridge too far two weeks ago.

In short, they angered many GOP legislators – a group that the party had slowly been winning over in recent years.

How did that happen?

The dissident group – nicknamed by some GOP lawmakers “Area 51” because it has 51 members (referencing the well-known secret base in Nevada, which is reportedly where the government is hiding aliens) – changed a party bylaw that threw the status of Republican candidates this year into question.

I won’t go through all the intricacies – having the party’s Qualified Political Party status at risk, the possibility the GOP could be reclassified as a Registered Political Party and all candidates have to gather signatures, neutering of the delegate/convention process this year, and more.

A group of House and Senate GOP folks – respected in both their caucuses – came up with a solution, which ultimately failed to pass as lawmakers adjourned their 2018 session Thursdaynight.

But all sides agree lawsuits are coming.

In fact, it’s been fairly well proven that the “Area 51” group made the changes so some of their members can sue in court – their ultimate goal, as the party’s always has been, having a court overturn the 2014 comprise law, SB54.

“Area 51” and their predecessors on the CC basically bankrupted the party over this effort – running up legal fees of around $400,000 – in the four-year legal battle over SB54.

They lost twice in federal court.

They lost before the Utah Supreme Court.

Their case is currently before a three-judge panel in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision likely this spring.

Who knows how that will go – but state attorneys are confidant SB54 will be upheld.

An “Area 51” “sugar daddy” has stepped forward, offering to pay the party’s legal fees. But so far not all of the money has come, is told, with questions arising whether it will. 

Now the dissident group – a minority in the CC who has gotten its way because not all of the 180 or so members have attended the “special” meetings – changes a bylaw that clearly violates the QPP requirements, which says candidates can advance via the caucus/delegate/convention process, or voter signature gathering, or both at the same time.

Meanwhile, the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition – which would enshrine SB54 through voter approval in November – marches forward.

Various polls show majority support among voters for the CMV petition.

And Utahns really oppose the Area 51 counter petition – Keep My Voice, which would only allow the caucus/delegate/convention process.

Any group seeking to change public policy – whether they believe they have a legal argument or not – makes a really stupid decision to anger the 104 part-time lawmakers.

You can mess with the media – angering that group has its own concerns, however.

You can make the governor mad. Herbert is a nice guy and likely will get over it.

But to threaten the group that actually makes the laws?  That, my friend, is just asking for pain.

“Area 51” is getting that pain now.

Embattled GOP state chairman Rob Anderson was, for a while, standing basically alone against the “Area 51” group.

No more.

He has Herbert behind him.

And he has most of the Republican lawmakers behind him.

It may take some time to slap down “Area 51” – perhaps all the way into spring 2019 when Central Committee membership elections are before the 4,500 state delegates in the organizing convention.

But, at least for now, the handwriting appears to be on the bloody state GOP office walls.

Mess with the Utah Legislature at your own risk.