Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The GOP is Not Done with the Fight Against SB54

Oh, the wheels within wheels of politics and power.

Watch the Aug. 15 state Republican Party Convention to see if delegates, through party rule changes, ban from their party candidates who take only the petition-gathering route to the GOP primary ballot, thus denying one of the main compromises reached in the SB54 law.

Recently, in a special meeting of the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee, the governing body of the state’s by far majority party decided to go forward with changing the party’s bylaws and constitution in a way that will allow it to become a Qualified Political Party under the new SB54 law.

That was welcome news, with party insiders saying the Count My Vote intra-party battles are over.

But, I’m told, in the closed portion of the CC meeting party leaders talked about restricting party membership to only those candidates who go through the caucus/delegate/convention vetting process. (GOP chairman James Evans couldn’t be reached for comment for this column.)

In essence, that would negate the alternate petition-gathering route set up in SB54 – and void the main compromise reached in the 2014 Legislature with the Count My Vote citizen initiative advocates.

   Under SB54 – if GOP delegates don’t ban candidates who seek the petition gathering primary route — come the 2016 general election candidates can attempt to get on the Republican primary ballot three ways:

— They can take the traditional route of going to the state GOP convention and have caucus-elected delegates vote on them.

If they get 60 percent of the delegate vote, they advance to a primary election as the only candidate coming out of the convention.

If some other candidates achieve the petition numbers, they, too, would appear on the primary ballot.

If the convention candidates don’t get 60 percent, the top two delegate vote-getters advance to the party primary (where they could meet petition-gathering candidates).

— Candidates can gather (under SB54) a set number of voter signatures from party members within in their district (or statewide for state office, like the governor, and U.S. Senate).

If they get those registered voter signatures, they advance to the GOP primary, bypassing the caucus/delegate/convention process.

— They take both primary routes at the same time. But if they get the needed signatures and DON’T come out of the convention via delegate votes, they are still on the primary ballot.

Thus, the convention delegate vote can advance them, but can’t delete them.

Here’s the new catch:

In saying the Utah Republican Party will move to change internal rules to become a Qualified Political Party (QPP) under SB54, Evans is not – at least not yet — saying that come 2016 any petition-route candidate can be listed on the GOP primary or general election ballot under the Utah Republican Party banner.

That could still be decided by party delegates in the Aug. 15 state GOP convention.

What am I talking about?

I’m saying that delegates could decide – via internal party membership rule changes – that ONLY a candidate going through the caucus/delegate/convention process could be listed as a Republican on the GOP ballot.

If a candidate went only the petition-gathering route, he could be denied Republican Party membership – and thus he couldn’t appear on the primary or general election ballots under the Utah Republican Party banner or list of ballot candidates.

Now, if the state GOP tried this, no doubt someone would sue – and the courts may decide.

Or if the state GOP convention this August did this, maybe the 2016 Legislature would act – and there could be even more lawsuits.

The state GOP has already sued in federal court over SB54. And the judge, while not sounding very sympathetic in a two-day hearing on the overall party’s legal position – that SB54 is unconstitutional on several grounds and should be struck down – repeatedly said that it was his opinion (based on previous court cases) that a party could define its membership.

Thus, it appears, that state GOP delegates in August could pass a new bylaw saying the ONLY candidates who came before them could run as Republicans on the primary and general election ballot.

You could be on the ballots under the SB54 petition-gathering route. But you couldn’t be listed as a Republican on those ballots – even if you were an incumbent Republican officeholder.

Now enter Taylor Morgan – top staffer for Count My Vote.

Count My Vote is the bipartisan citizen initiative petition effort that sought to get an open primary law on the 2014 ballot.

CMV, backed by some wealthy Utahns, clearly had the 102,000 needed registered voter signatures to get their open primary law on the 2014 ballot.

And polls taken at that time showed by far a majority of Utahns supported it.

GOP legislators in the 2014 general session – seeing the real possibility that their beloved caucus/delegate/convention process would be junked at the ballot box – came up with the SB54 compromise, accepted by legislators and CMV top supporters, but NOT state Republican Party leaders.

SB54 actually SAVES the caucus/delegate/convention process as one alternative to the GOP and Democratic primary ballots.

The Utah Democratic Party now accepts SB54, and will make what changes are needed to follow it.

But the state GOP will continue its federal lawsuit against SB54; with party leaders only saying they will try to become a QPP.

Morgan has recently officially taken out the name “Republican Party of Utah” with state licensing officials.

The regular old GOP is licensed under “Utah Republican Party.”

Could a 2016 GOP candidate who takes the petition-gathering route – and is banned from appearing under the Utah Republican Party banner on the primary ballot – instead appear under a ballot banner called “Republican Party of Utah?”

And how confusing would that be for primary voters, even general election voters?

Or could state GOP delegates ban petition-gathering candidates from their primary ballot, and change the 60 percent nomination rule to 70 percent, or even 75 percent?

Then, under the argument that they don’t want three, four or more Republicans on their primary ballot, delegates could argue a plurality win is bad for the party, bad for voters.

And with a higher chance of two Republicans coming out of the convention and to the primary, delegates and party bosses could say they’ve fixed the “plurality problem” of SB54.

When the specially-called GOP Central Committee decided to pursue becoming a QPP under SB54 for 2016, many pundits thought the SB54/CMV battle was over, at least for now.

But maybe it isn’t.

Watch the Aug. 15 state GOP convention and see what the SB54-hating delegates come up with.

There could still be some devilish actions taken.