U.S. Sen. Mike Lee will endorse his former deputy chief of staff, Derek Brown, to be the next chairman of the Utah Republican Party, UtahPolicy.com has confirmed with several sources close to both Brown and Lee.
A source with Brown’s campaign confirmed Lee’s endorsement would be forthcoming prior to the Utah GOP State Convention on Saturday at Utah Valley University.
Most Republicans don’t much care who runs the state party. But for several months, various GOP leaders have been calling this chairman’s race critical to getting Utah’s largest political party back on track.
While four folks are running for chairman, in reality, the contest is between Brown and Phill Wright, a former state party vice chair and former chair of the Davis County GOP.
The delegates love Lee, R-Utah, who is one of the more conservative/constitutional-oriented U.S. senators. Lee has been loudly cheered at recent GOP conventions when other Republican state leaders are met with much less enthusiasm, sometimes even a few boos.
Brown securing Lee’s endorsement may turn out to be key in a tight chairmanship race and a gut-punch for Wright.
Wright is a leader of the so-called “Gang of 51” – a group of dissident State Central Committee members who have battled current party chair Rob Anderson constantly over the last two years, mainly over their ferocious opposition to SB54.
The dual pathway law, which allows candidates to decide to take the voter signature gathering route to the party primary, or the delegate/convention route, or both routes at the same time, has split the Utah Republican Party.
Many of the 4,000 state delegates are archconservatives – and strong supporters of the party’s caucus/delegate/convention candidate-nominating process.
Wright is an employee of Dave Bateman at Bateman’s Entrata software firm. Bateman donated more than $200,000 to pay party attorney fees in the failed court challenges to SB54.
Wright heads the Keep My Voice petition movement that kept the Count My Vote pro-SB54 citizen initiative petition off of the November ballot.
Brown at one time was Lee’s deputy chief of staff and head of his Utah operations. Brown resigned his Utah House seat to take that job in 2013.
Lee was a national poster boy for the Tea Party movement in 2010 since Lee helped drive then-GOP Sen. Bob Bennett from office in that year’s state Republican Convention.
So it was a bit odd as Lee stayed on the state party chairmanship sidelines over the past few months.
UtahPolicy.com is told that Lee’s endorsement has been a closely-held secret inside the Brown campaign, especially since he has previously given few endorsements.
As one source told UtahPolicy: “Phill is freaking out” over the Lee endorsement, as his camp hoped Lee staying on the sidelines would tell delegates that Brown may not be the sought-after solution after all to quell the bitter infighting that has left the party financially bankrupt.
Brown is wary of being too closely tied to the so-called “GOP establishment,” state and legislative officeholders who openly recruited what are termed “reasonable” Republicans to run in county GOP conventions this spring to sit on the state party’s Central Committee – a group of 187 insider Republicans that basically run the party.
Those “reasonable” Central Committee candidates have done well in the county conventions.
By several insider counts, the Gang of 51 has been cut down by retirements and losing Central Committee elections – they may hold only 20 to 25 seats – not 50 — when all the county elections are over. Bateman won a state Central Committee seat in last Saturday’s Utah County GOP convention.
Accordingly, who wins the state party chairmanship may be critical – as Wright would likely continue divisive anti-SB54 moves, while Brown looks to heal wounds and put SB54 behind the party.