Utah GOP hardliners proposing radical changes to party rules

Well, it never seems to end.

When the 180-member Central Committee of the Utah Republican Party meets later this month – in its regular quarterly meeting – bylaw changes will be presented that would open the door to GOP bosses kicking out of the party any candidate who takes the signature-gathering route to the party primary.

Other changes would allow the state party to oppose a signature-gathering candidate who either did not also go to the party convention for a delegate vote or went to the convention but was eliminated by the delegates.

And if the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature later passed a law to allow it, that bylaw change would also have convention-approved candidates listed first on the ballot with the label “Party Endorsed” next to their name.

If approved by the state Central Committee May 19, the changes do not appear to apply to the two major intraparty races this year – the U.S. Senate and 3rd Congressional District primary contests.

However, in the future, if a primary occurred like last year’s 3rd District special election, the ultimate winner there – now-U.S. Rep. John Curtis – could have “actively” been opposed by his own Utah Republican Party.

And last year’s 3rd District primary candidate Tanner Ainge could have been kicked out of the party – for he only took the signature gathering route.

Phill Wright, a former GOP vice chairman who is leading the Gang of 51 – the hardcore state Central Committee members who are battling beleaguered party chairman Rob Anderson – is sponsoring several of the bylaw changes.

Wright is also running for a state House seat this year, challenging Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful.

A list of the suggested bylaw changes to be heard May 19 by the Central Committee can be found here.

Wright et al. have had their way in two “special” CC meetings over recent months because not all of the 180-member Central Committee members showed up.

Anderson told UtahPolicy he hopes more will attend May 19.

“Then a majority” of the CC “can act in a common sense way” and defeat some of the more “ridiculous” bylaw changes.

For example, one proposed change would demand that the party chairman act as the CC instructs or face reprimands, suspensions or ouster.

Another says the chairman can’t rule any bylaw change as against state or federal law (and thus non-enforceable) without a district court judge’s decision.

Anderson has refused to go along with several decisions made in the “special” CC committee meetings – including refusing to recognize one bylaw change that violated Utah state election law – a change that GOP Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state elections office, also refused to recognize, for the same reason.

One May 19 change is the same proposal that was supposed to go before one of the two “special” CC meetings held several months ago – but which Anderson ruled out of order.

The bylaw change appears innocuous in print.

Its effect, however, is anything but.

Even though SB54 specifically says any candidate can take either the signature-gathering route or the caucus/delegate/convention route, or both at the same time if this bylaw is adopted the party can decide the membership of anyone.

And to be a member you have to, for example, follow the party constitution and bylaws.

And currently, the only way in party bylaws to become the “official” party nominee is through the delegate/convention process.

Thus, any signature-gathering candidate can’t be the “official” party nominee, and since that candidate violated a party bylaw, he can’t be a Republican, either.

Now, Cox, the state’s official election officer, has already said that he will enforce SB54 and that any candidate who gathers the required number of signatures for his or her race will be placed on their party’s primary ballot.

So the Beck proposal can’t – as it now appears – keep anyone off the closed, GOP primary ballot.

But if the bylaw change passes, it could set up yet another legal challenge by the party to SB54 – something the so-called Gang of 51 inside the CC has acknowledged it seeks.

However, the bylaw change could allow further steps to be taken at some point by a so-called “purity” committee.

The bylaw change would allow the party itself – and the governing body of the party is the Central Committee – to decide who can be recognized for membership, saying a prospective member must obey the constitution and bylaws, before the individual’s name is officially added to the membership database.

Anywhere along that route someone, or someones, inside the party could decide to deny party membership to a person.

So if some future party member takes action that the CC sees as violating party rules, he or she could be kicked out of the party or denied entry.

Now, the bylaw change itself doesn’t do this.

But it clearly sets up a mechanism for expulsion from the party.

If this bylaw had been in effect last year, it appears that Curtis could have been kicked out of the Utah Republican Party. Curtis was eliminated in the 3rd District special convention, only to make the ballot via signatures, defeat the convention’s nominee, Chris Herrod in the primary, and easily win the final election.

Such an action would not have cost Curtis his U.S. House seat, and would not have kept him off of the 2017 GOP primary ballot.

But it could have been an embarrassment to Curtis, even to the Utah Republican Party itself – you win primary and general elections only to have your home-state party bosses say you are not a real Republican.

Likewise, if Wright’s proposed changes were in place last year, the party could have actively opposed Curtis’ candidacy in the special 3rd District election – and Herrod’s name on the GOP primary ballot would have “Party Endorsed” next to it.

Curtis easily defeated Herrod last year.

They both came out of the recent state GOP convention this year and will face each other again on the June 26 primary.

Also on that GOP primary ballot, Mitt Romney faces state Rep. Mike Kennedy in the U.S. Senate race.

Romney took the signature-gathering route this year. But he also came out of the convention, albeit finishing second to Kennedy.

Thus, under the proposed bylaw changes, Romney would not be singled out as a non-Republican – since he went to the convention and was not eliminated.

However, if the proposed changes to party rules pass, clearly any signature-only GOP candidate or any signature candidate who was eliminated in the convention, could face being kicked out of the party or opposed by his own party in a primary campaign.