Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Republican Candidates Really Like SB54

bernick mugGuess who is using SB54’s new dual-track process to get on their political party’s primary ballot in 2016?


Especially Republican incumbents in the Utah House and Senate.

In fact, when I checked Thursday afternoon on the Utah Elections website, out of the 70 folks who have signed up for the petition route, all but one were Republicans.

The lone Democrat is gubernatorial candidate Vaughn Cook.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported this week that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s financial disclosure finds $50,000 spent on an out-of-state political firm that specializes in signature gathering.

But so far Herbert has not officially signed up, and so can’t start gathering the 28,000 statewide signatures of registered Republicans he will need to be certified to the Republican primary ballot.

His announced GOP opponent, Jonathan Johnson, switched tactics and said last week he would not be gathering signatures, but put all his hopes into the hands of the state GOP delegates – to be chosen in March 22 neighborhood party caucuses.

Candidates not taking the signature-gathering route don’t have to file (in fact, can’t file) until mid-March.

So we don’t know who they are unless they have in some manner publically declared their intention to run in 2016.

Thus, we have the Utah State Republican Party officially fighting SB54 and the dual-route to the party primary.

We have the Utah Democratic Party officially endorsing SB43 and the dual route.

And we have almost ALL the candidates who are taking the SB54 dual route being Republicans.

Strange political bedfellows, to say the least.

Democratic candidates, especially those seeking legislative seats, seem perfectly happy just going before their party delegates in county conventions or the state convention.

What does this tell us?

Well, those of us who watch politics for a living have guessed all along that the Count My Vote 2014 petition effort was an attempt to change how Republicans were elected in Utah, not Democrats.

And while CMV was bipartisan or nonpartisan in its make-up, since Republicans dominate the Utah power structure, the petition effort was always seen by insiders as a battle for control of the state GOP.

Or at least, a battle to moderate the politics of Utah GOP officeholders.

And in its way, the number of GOP incumbents taking the dual route to the Republican Party’s primary election bears this out.

By my count, there are 27 of 63 GOP state House incumbents signed up for the signature-gathering process, and 8 GOP Senate incumbents (including a House member, Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who is running for the Senate this year).

Some House conservatives, like Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, have decided not to spend the time, effort and money to collect the 1,000 signatures needed to automatically make their GOP House primary ballot.

(It cost state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, around $8,000 for professional signature gathers to get the 2,000 signatures he needed – and it was done in just over two days work.)

As Hughes told me earlier this year, he’s willing to let his House District 51 delegates decide his fate.

However, it would be unusually rare for delegates to oust a sitting speaker, who has great power to help out his district and local party.

But a review of the signature route signees finds House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville – the second most powerful guy in the 75-member House – taking the signature/dual route.

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, House Majority Whip, is also taking the dual path.

And if you were to ask all the 27 GOP House members taking the signature route, I guess all would tell you they also plan to file for the delegate/convention route in mid-March.

So they will appear before their delegates — in a county party convention if their district is wholly located in a county, or the state GOP convention if they are in a multi-county district – and let those delegates vote on them.

But under SB54, if a candidate gets the number of signatures needed, he or she can’t be kicked out of the primary by delegates, even if they get NOT ONE delegate vote.

The signatures alone move them automatically to their party’s primary ballot.

The state GOP has already sued in federal court over SB54; the judge ruling the petition route legal, but striking down the law’s requirement that a Qualified Political Party must allow independents to vote in their party primary. (Republicans hold closed primaries in Utah.)

That stricken clause is no big deal to CMV and SB54 supporters. What they wanted was the dual route, and the federal judge upheld that.

Now the GOP and state Elections Office will go before the Utah Supreme Court to decide other issues, including whether a signature-only candidate can be denied a spot on the ballot by the party itself, and whether even a dual-route candidate can be eliminated by party delegates in the convention.

The state says no to both issues.

The party says it has the ultimate right to decide its nominees in the way it wishes, out of state control.

One thing is clear by the recent signature-route candidate filings:

— Utah Democrats don’t much care about SB54; they are going to let their party delegates to vote on them.

— Many Utah GOP incumbents do care about SB54, and are taking the dual route to their primary ballot so – unless the state high court decides otherwise – they can’t be kicked out of office by angry, grumpy or arch-conservative party delegates.

One must hope that by the mid-March traditional candidate-filing deadline, the critical issues over SB54 are decided by the courts, and there is certainty about primary ballot access by spring party convention time and the late-June primary election.