Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Utah Republicans May Outsmart Themselves on SB54

Interesting tensions are playing out now in the upper levels of the Utah Republican Party, as some leaders are preparing to change party rules to comply with SB54 – and the Utah GOP becomes a “Qualified Political Party” under the new law.

Meanwhile, there continue to be indications that some party leaders want to restrict party membership to future candidates who go through the traditional caucus/delegate/convention process, and perhaps ban candidates who decide to go the petition-gathering route.

Certainly several proposed bylaw changes coming to a party Central Committee meeting later this month are aimed at encouraging all candidates to take the caucus/delegate/convention route by making it easier for more convention candidates to come out of those delegate votes and make it to the primary ballot.

On top of all this, other GOP leaders want to make sure any GOP candidate can get on the ballot by following the petition-gathering route outlined in SB54 – and can’t be eliminated by party delegates trying to deny them party membership.

Right now it is a whirlwind of ideas and proposals, which will be considered in some fashion by Central Committee members and party delegates over the next few months.

Meanwhile, a GOP legislator, who is also an attorney, citing part of the new dual-candidate-pathway law, SB54, has opined to UtahPolicy that it appears to him that GOP leaders CAN NOT restrict the candidate primary pathways without violating SB54, and thus jeopardize the party’s attempts to become a Qualified Political Party for the 2016 elections.

I wrote in a column last week that some mischief could be brewing by some GOP leaders – with perhaps an attempt coming to deny party membership to future Republican candidates who choose only the voter signature petition pathway to the Republican primary ballot.

That column stirred up some interesting responses.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, read the column and recently noted to me this part of SB54: “20A-9-101 paragraph 12:

"Qualified political party" means a registered political party that:

(d) permits a member of the registered political party to seek the registered political party's nomination for any elective office by the member choosing to seek the nomination by either or both of the following methods:

(i) seeking the nomination through the registered political party's convention process, in accordance with the provisions of Section 20A-9-407; or

(ii) seeking the nomination by collecting signatures, in accordance with the provisions of Section 20A-9-408.”

I’m no attorney, but it appears to me SB54 says if you are a QPP you CAN’T exclude from your candidate nomination process anyone who takes the voter signature petition-gathering route to your party’s primary ballot.

You can read for yourself the various party bylaw/constitutional change proposals set for a June 27 meeting of the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee.

Some are quite interesting and could have long-term implications for Utah elections and politics if later adopted by nearly 4,000 delegates meeting Aug 15 in the state party convention.

Several of the proposed changes – including raising the candidate nomination threshold from 60 percent to 75 percent and/or ensuring that any candidate that gets 25 percent of the delegate vote advances to a primary — are clearly aimed at getting more candidates to take the caucus/delegate/convention route to the party primary.

What set off all the speculation about the GOP banning candidates, via party membership exclusion, from getting on the party’s primary ballot if they took the petition-gathering route was this bylaw change adopted last month in a specially-called CC meeting.

It says: “Party membership is open to any resident of the State of Utah who registers to vote as a Republican and complies with the Utah Republican Party Constitution and Bylawsand membership may be further set forth in the Utah Republican Party Bylaws.”

There so far is not a resolution/bylaw change to pull party membership from petition-gathering GOP candidates.

But some Republicans are still talking about it.

Also in the last CC meeting a resolution was submitted that would get the party chairman out of the firing line on SB54 legal issues.

A five-member Constitutional Defense Committee would be appointed to lead that fight, and the CDC, to pay legal expenses, would fund raise separately from the party.

Former state Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said he pulled his resolution from the May 30 meeting because of time constraints, and has since learned that it may violate the party constitution, which says only the chair can create committees, not the Central Committee.

The idea, said Herrod, was that there is natural tension between an executive (the chairman) and the legislative (the CC) branches, and that maybe it was wise to have the CC committee looking at party legal issues, and have a separation of the executive fundraising for the party and fundraising for legal challenges – like the party’s current federal court case against SB54.

Any number of high-profile Republicans have said they won’t be giving any money to the state or county GOPs because they support Count My Vote and/or SB54, and don’t want their donations used to fight either effort.

In any case, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the Utah Republican Party right now.

Stay tuned – the Aug. 15 state GOP convention should be something.