Bob Bernick’s notebook: The coming fight for the soul of the Utah GOP

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Over the next six weeks, the fate of the Utah State Republican Party will be decided for the next two years, if not well beyond that.

Most Utahns, even most Republican Utahns, could care less about who leads the official state party – the chairman and the 187 members of the party’s Central Committee, the governing body of the party.

The 650,000 Utahns who have registered as Republicans with their county clerks go about their daily business gladly ignorant of who runs the party day-to-day.

On primary election day, those 650,000 registered Republicans just want to be able to vote in the party’s closed primary. (You have to be a registered Republican in order to vote in the primary.)

And, perhaps, 60,000 or so of those 650,000 – or less than 10 percent – will go every two years to their March neighborhood caucus meetings, where they vote on county and state delegates and elect a precinct chair (but usually that precinct chair is just picked as the only guy willing to do it).

And at the county conventions in off-election years, those delegates meet and vote for county GOP top officers and pick that county’s share of state party Central Committee members.

At the state so-called “organizing” convention in off-years, state delegates vote for chairman, vice-chairman, secretary and treasurer.

All this party organization stuff is wheels within wheels – far away from your average, grass-roots, Utah Republican voter.

How far away?

Well, 90 percent of the 650,000 registered Republicans don’t even go to their March neighborhood party caucus – so they have no say at all in the party leaders.

Even if they go, maybe out of 20 or 25 attendees, one is picked as the state delegate, maybe two or three as county delegates. So if you are not the delegate, your choice for ultimate leader ends there.

Assuming that the county delegate bothers to go to their off-year county convention (and sometimes only two-thirds show up), then they have one vote out of the delegates – maybe a few hundred in a small county, up to a few thousand in a large population county.

Then about 90 of the 187 Central Committee members are picked at the county conventions – the rest of the state CC are “automatic” members because they are county chairs and vice chairs, or hold a top public elected office, like U.S. senator or governor or such.


OK, that’s understandable.

But what is going to happen at the May 4 state GOP convention at Utah Valley University is still really critical if you are one of the 650,000 registered Utah Republicans.


Because this election for chairman will determine – to a large degree – whether the state party apparatus is once again highjacked by a group of rightwing zealots, determined to continue the party’s spiral into irrelevancy – or whether it can be righted (yes, I like that pun) and once again be able to fundraise to help its candidates and otherwise act like a mature, conscientious political party.

I certainly don’t have the space here to recall all of the party infighting since 2014, when the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert adopted SB54 – the election law that allows a dual pathway for candidates to make their party’s primary ballot.

Upheld now as constitutional by the Utah Supreme Court, two federal court rulings, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, SB54 allows a candidate to gather a set number of voter signatures in his/her district, or statewide for offices like governor, or take only the convention/delegate route to the primary, or take both routes at the same time.

The rightwing/CC members of the so-called ‘Gang of 51” hate SB54.

They have bankrupted the party in the losing legal fights.

And that faction of the CC – as Keep My Voice – funded by basically one millionaire – successfully kept the Count My Vote popular citizen initiative petition, upholding SB54, off of the 2018 ballot – even though over 60 percent of Utahns like SB54.

Now on May 4 the GOP state delegates can pick a new chairman – chairman Rob Anderson has had enough of the “Gang of 51.”

Phill Wright, who lost to Anderson in the 2017 chairman’s race and the nominal head of the “Gang,” is running again for chairman.

Most likely, so will be a number of the “Gang’s” current CC members be seeking re-election to the state Central Committee in their separate county party conventions, held throughout April.

If Wright wins it will be – as my sainted mother used to say – “Katie bar the door.”

Even if many of the “Gang of 51” are not re-elected to the CC in the county conventions, with Wright’s leadership we may very well see (for these things have been tried before):

  • GOP candidates who take the legal SB54 signature route be stripped of their “official” party membership.
  • New lawsuits (likely unsuccessful) aimed at overturning SB54, and/or new lawsuits aimed at giving the party, not the state, the power to control who gets on the Republican Party’s taxpayer paid for primary ballot.
  • Official party endorsements of only candidates who come out of conventions.
  • County or state Republican parties officially OPPOSING GOP candidates in a primary election who get on the ballot via the legal SB54 signatures.
  • Continued fund-raising problems for the state Republican Party – with not enough financial wherewithal to really help GOP candidates in general elections.
  • The state party meetings/conventions remaining a “dumpster fire,” with mainstream Republicans up and down the state wanting little to do with them.

(This is how nuts the state party has become – just one example: A special “technology” committee of the CC came up with the idea that the best way to count votes at state conventions is to go back to paper ballots (they electronically vote now), separate the votes for each candidate, and then weigh the ballots to decide who got the most votes – thus not having to hand count them to save time. Really!)

Now, why should anyone be bothered by these state GOP chicken fights?

Because most partisan elected officials in Utah are Republican. In many, many races, who wins the party nomination – in a county, legislative or statewide office – will win the general election.

There are just too many Republican votes in those races, and the Democrat either has no real chance, or no Democrat even filed in the race.

So how the Utah Republican Party picks its candidates, at the county or state level, is very important for all of us.

If the right-wing county or state delegates only get the say – not primary GOP voters — we will end up with more right-wing officeholders – not only NOT reflecting the majority of voters, but not even reflecting the majority of Republican voters.

Six weeks of county and state Republican conventions, ending with the May 4 chairman’s race.

Hold your breath Utah.