Liljenquist Mulling a Challenge to Evans for GOP Chair

Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist told UtahPolicy Monday night that he is “seriously considering” running for state GOP chair later this year.

Liljenquist’s interest comes as current state Republican Party Chairman James Evans faces considerable criticism for his handling of the SB54 “crisis” – as Evans has put it – facing Utah’s largest political party.

Evans told UtahPolicy during the 2015 Legislature – where Evans failed to get the GOP-controlled House and Senate to make changes to SB54, the Count My Vote compromise passed in the 2014 general session – that he was going to stand for re-election in the upcoming Aug. 15 state GOP convention.

At the convention, the 4,000 state GOP delegates will vote on new party leadership.

Aside from the SB54 controversy, Evans oversaw a very successful 2014 election cycle.

Utah Republicans gained seats in the state House, kept their super-majority in the state Senate, and with Mia Love winning the 4thCongressional District, saw all four U.S House seats going to Republicans.

Republicans already held the governor’s office, the attorney general office, and two U.S Senate seats – making Utah one of the most Republican states in the nation.

But Evans stepped in a public hornets nest when he recently suggested that the state GOP “scrutinize” Republican candidates in 2016 who take the SB54-approve petition route to the Republican primary ballot.

Evans said a special committee could be set up to interview petition-route candidates. If they refused to be interviewed, their party membership could be revoked, and they couldn’t run as a Republican.

Petition candidates may have to pay the party a fee, up to $10,000, to compensate party expenses, which could include educating rank-and-file GOP voters on whether the candidate agrees with all of the party platform and other long-held GOP principles, said Evans.

While Evans seemed to back away from setting up a special committee to interview candidates, and even have the state GOP campaign against Republicans who refuse to be interviewed and/or take away their party membership, just last week he announced a special survey, or poll, of caucus-going Republicans, delegates and officeholders to find out what kind of actions the party should take in light of SB54.

And that survey includes questions about setting up an interview committee and/or refusing to let petition route candidates from running under the GOP banner.

The survey was just the latest move by Evans that seems to be dividing some Utah Republicans.

Liljenquist said Evans’ faltering is only one reason he’s “seriously considering” running for the state GOP chairmanship.

“We have to bring the party together,” said Liljenquist.

The best way to do that is not squabble over SB54. Let the federal lawsuit go forth, said Liljenquist.

“I think we need it” to clarify just where SB54 is or is not constitutional.

But should the court uphold the critical parts of SB54, then it is time to stop fighting over it, said Liljenquist.

Particularly, in Evans’ survey questionnaire – you can read it here – the party should not attempt to take away party membership, or hamper in any way, a GOP candidate who is taking a legal (SB54) path to the Republican Party primary, said Liljenquist.

There is a big IF here, he added.

Liljenquist says he is a strong supporter of the caucus/convention process. He believes it is the best possible candidate vetting process.

He says he would not have been elected to his Bountiful Senate district in the first place if not for the caucus/delegate/convention process.

But if the Legislature passes a law (Liljenquist was not in the state Senate in 2014), and that law is upheld in the courts, then the party should not attempt to hinder a candidate who is taking a legal path in his campaign, said Liljenquist.

Clearly, some of the questions in Evans’ survey, if adopted by GOP state delegates, would hamper – or even stop – a Republican candidate seeking the petition-gathering route set up under SB54.

“The best way to support the caucus/convention system right now,” said Liljenquist, “is to run the very best caucuses next year – and so show Utahns that the caucus process is the best for us.”

As party chairman, said Liljenquist, organizing and carrying out a high turnout to 2016 GOP March caucuses would be one of his top priorities.

“We should not be kicking out of our party anyone – including candidates – who want to be part of our party processes,” Liljenquist added, when asked if any candidate or another person not agreeing with the caucus/convention process should have their party membership revoked.

Evans says he will have the results of his survey compiled for a May 30meeting of the GOP’s Central Committee – the group of 180 or so elected and appointed party leaders who basically run the party’s organization.

But Liljenquist said his self-imposed deadline of making his decision on whether to run or not by the end of May is not connected to the CC meeting or Evans’ survey results.

“Right now I’m trying to decide if I can put in the time” to be party chairman, a volunteer position that can be an almost full-time job, especially during the spring and summer of an election year.

Liljenquist works as a consultant for Intermountain Health Care and on pension reform efforts in other states.

Liljenquist only served about three years in the Utah Senate – from 2010 to 2013 – but led various reform efforts, including Utah State pension reform.

He resigned his seat to run against U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2014.

Liljenquist stopped Hatch from winning the nomination in the state convention, but then lost to Hatch’s impressive campaign machine in the June 2014 Republican Party primary election.

Liljenquist is a Deseret News guest columnist, and here is his recently-published piece on SB54 and the problems inside the Utah State Republican Party.