Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The Heavyweights Weigh In

Count on GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and U. S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both R-Utah, to weigh in on the State Republican Party’s SB54 fight this spring, Herbert told his monthly KUED Channel 7 news conference Thursday morning.

In short, if recalcitrant party archconservatives don’t start to get their act together, the big boys in Utah GOP politics will get involved.

I asked Herbert what he thought about the worse case scenario that GOP state Chairman James Evans recently told a U.S. Federal Court judge in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to impose an indefinite stay on SB54: That Evans doesn’t believe GOP delegates or Central Committee members will make the necessary bylaw/party constitutional changes this summer to allow the state party to become a “registered” or “qualified” political party by this fall – and that would mean ALL GOP candidates in 2016 would not be running on the ballot under the Republican Party banner.

Herbert said: “I’m a Republican. I’m a registered Republican. And I will be on the (2016 ballot) as a Republican.”

He said he and other leading GOP officeholders/candidates would “weigh in” on the state GOP’s planning, or lack of planning, and make sure Republican candidates will be on the 2016 ballot.

That means, at the very least, the state GOP will (as UtahPolicy has reported before it must) file an official letter with the Utah Elections Office, overseen by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, to become a “registered” political party under SB54.

But if party leaders want the option of having their candidates go through the caucus/delegate/convention process next year, they must become a “qualified” political party – which, claims Evans – will require changes to party bylaws and constitution.

Herbert said he prefers that “qualified” political party alternative, for at least delegates will have “half a loaf” solution, instead of the no loaf of a “registered” political party – where candidates could only go through the voter petition signature route and delegates wouldn’t get a vote on candidates at all.

Evans said in court papers he can’t guarantee that delegates to the Aug. 15 state GOP convention will make those changes.

Contacted while traveling Thursday evening, Evans said that one way or another in 2016 Republican candidates “will be scrutinized” by the party apparatus.

That could come by delegates in convention, or by Republican voters in a primary election, said Evans.

What won’t happen, said Evans, is that any candidate can go through the party process without being measured by the party platform and ideals.

“This will happen regardless of the path taken” by the candidates, he added.

Evans said it is appropriate for the elected top Republicans to “weigh in,” just as he expects other parts of the party – caucus attendees, delegates, Central Committee members and primary voters – to also have their say.

Herbert seemed to say Thursday that he and other party elected officeholders will make sure those changes happen, one way or another.

In a conversation with Evans during a break in a recent court hearing, he said that it is his understanding that a “concerted effort” was being made by some county party leaders to elect new Central Committee members – representing their county organizations — in county conventions now, or soon to be, taking place.

Evans didn’t predict that many CC members would be replaced.

But he has told UtahPolicy before that there is a core of current CC members (there are around 180 Central Committee members picked by delegates) that have been resistant to any compromises on SB54.

In fact, the CC has voted down any changes asked by SB54 several times already.

Unfortunately for Evans (and Herbert and others GOP leaders), the new Central Committee won’t take their seats until two weeks AFTER the Aug. 15 state Republican convention – where bylaw changes will be discussed.

So even if some, or many, of the SB54 CC obstructionists – my term, not Evans – are replaced, it will be the current CC who are in power leading up to the state convention.

Herbert signed SB54 last year after it passed the 2014 Legislature; it took effect Jan. 1.

And GOP hardliners have been complaining about it ever since. The state GOP – with CC approval – filed a federal lawsuit against SB54 in December.

Meanwhile, a number of GOP legislators have been complaining that Evans has not pushed his Central Committee hard enough to accept the SB54 compromise law and try to work within its boundaries – even while suing the state claiming SB54 is unconstitutional because it restricts the party members’ “free association” rights.

Evans and a few anti-SB54 GOP legislators were unsuccessful in the recently-completed 2015 Legislature to repeal or even change SB54.

After this weekend, county Republican parties in Beaver, Iron, Summit, Cache, and Utah counties will have held their 2015 conventions – electing new or re-electing CC members.

The largest GOP delegate delegation is from Salt Lake County, which holds its county convention May 16.

After then, Evans will have a good idea how many of the current archconservative obstructionist CC members will be returning, how many will be gone – replaced by perhaps more SB54 reasonable Republicans.

Add to all this political intrigue the fact that Evans is running for re-election as chairman in the Aug. 15 convention, and you can see there are wheels within wheels, issues inside issues.

At the end of the day, said Herbert, “I’m sorry to see this infighting in the Republican Party.”

The federal judge has spoken, said Herbert.

Judge David Nuffer, in denying the injunction and making it clear in comments from the bench, said that the state GOP has a very high bar of unconstitutionality to meet.

So far, said Herbert, “there is no constitutional violation” in SB54, although at this stage Evans says the party’s lawsuit against the new law will continue.

Said Herbert: “I expect common sense will prevail” in the state GOP leadership, “the problem will be resolved.”

“I trust the delegates will be sensible” at the Aug. 15 convention “about this issue and move forward,” said the governor.

“The (Utah) Republican Party will have Republicans on their ballot in 2016,” said Herbert.

Evans said Utahns in general and Republicans in particular can rest assured that come the 2016 elections any candidate under the Republican banner “will be a Republican candidate,” and not some interloper who may not uphold fundamental GOP ideals, “like lower taxes, less government, building a stronger family and economy.”

You can see the Republican Party’s schedule for county party 2015 conventions here.