Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Will Legislative Republicans Pay a Political Price for SB54?

bernick mugUtah House leaders Greg Hughes, Jim Dunnigan and Brad Wilson have a problem – they all voted for SB54 in 2014.

But now the speaker, majority leader and assistant majority whip could face a majority of their 63-member GOP caucus in revolt over what’s happened to SB54.

And come the 2016 House leadership elections – to be held just after the November general election – the three could well find themselves in the minority among GOP House members.

In short, the three – who likely will be running for their leadership positions again – will be asking for support from some caucus members who dislike — or just hate — the new candidate signature petition selection process allowed under SB54.

In a House floor vote earlier this session, 30 Republicans voted for the repeal of SB54, 30 Republicans voted against repeal, and three Republicans were off the floor and didn’t vote.

Because all 12 Democrats voted against repeal, the attempt by freshman Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, failed, 30-42-3.

Hughes, R-Draper, saying he was “a man of my word,” voted to uphold SB54 in that case.

But now Hughes says the SB54 compromise with the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition advocates is dead – killed by two federal court rulings.

However, it is more than just what’s happened to SB54 in the courts.

It’s what’s happened to SB54 within the House GOP caucus that House leaders must pay attention to.

(House Majority Whip Frances Gibson, R-Mapleton, voted against SB54 back in 2014 and so doesn’t face the same intra-caucus problems as the other three.)

At least three House Republicans who voted NOT to repeal SB54 are not running for re-election, either retiring or running for the state Senate.

Who knows how many other pro-SB54 House Republicans will be left after GOP delegates and primary voters and general election voters get done with them this year?

So, it’s likely come the House majority leadership elections next November, Hughes et al. will be facing a majority of their caucus members who DON’T want SB54.

And may not want the leaders who helped put SB54 into law, either.

Of course, leadership elections will be more than just SB54.

There’s Medicaid expansion and any number of other issues at play.

And there’s the way Hughes and his leadership handled their jobs, led the caucus and the House against the Senate and GOP Gary Herbert.

Leaders’ personalities play into those elections, too, and on and on.

At this point, it appears Hughes, Dunnigan and Wilson are well-liked by their caucus members.

But SB54 will be part of the mix, especially as the GOP House members will be hearing from their delegates (most of whom don’t like SB54 taking away their power) this spring, and from GOP voters if they are in the June closed Republican primary.

And so Hughes, “a man of his word,” is shifting on the SB54 compromise.

Expect Dunnigan, Wilson and a few other previous supporters of SB54 to follow.

Hughes does have a point, as he and other Republicans see the SB54 ground moving under their political feet.

The Utah Republican Party has filed two federal lawsuits. And Judge David Nuffer has, in this writer’s opinion, painted himself into a legal corner.

First, Nuffer ruled the state can’t force the state GOP to open its now-closed primary. Thus, only registered Republicans can vote on GOP primary candidates.

It then follows, only registered GOP voters can sign Republican candidate signature petitions – for that is one SB54 route to the GOP primary.

Thus, the 1,000 signatures, allowed from any registered voter, required for a House candidate and the 2,000 voter signatures required for a Senate candidate are out of whack.

In split districts or Democratic-leaning districts, the percent of GOP signatures required goes way up – in a few above 50 percent of the registered GOP voters.

And that high percentage threshold violates previous federal court rulings.

Thus, Nuffer is on the verge of throwing out SB54’s signature requirements.

And that, says Hughes, “kills” the SB54 compromise – for his “yea” vote back in 2014 was built on a more challenging nomination path for signature candidates than for caucus/convention candidates – reflecting his belief that the caucus/convention process is the better of the two.

Also, says Hughes, a very low signature threshold means the primary ballot may be crammed with candidates. That could naturally result in the highest primary vote-getter NOT achieving a majority of votes, but a plurality of votes.

And that could result in a candidate winning the GOP nomination with 45 percent, or 35 percent, or even 30 percent of the primary vote.

Hughes says not only is that no good (although Utah has twice in recent years had minority-elected governors), the problem with plurality was not part of the SB54 compromise.

And so you can see that Hughes et al. take one small step after another in their march to disavow the SB54 compromise.

There is some logic here.

But at its heart, I believe, is internal House GOP politics.

The result, of course, comes the question whether anyone can trust the Utah House, the Utah Senate, and Herbert (who signed SB54) to keep their word – their promise — made to the CMV organizers and the more-than-100,000 voters who signed the CMV petition.

Herbert told reporters Tuesday that he desires no action on SB54 now – let the courts rule and later lawmakers and he may want to react.

But Herbert didn’t threaten a veto.

So we return to the core of the SB54 promise: That a candidate can get on the primary ballot WITHOUT being vetted by archconservative county or state GOP delegates.

Yes, it may be after November’s election that the GOP House caucus is made up MOSTLY of men and women who opposed SB54 in 2014 or never voted on it.

But does the word of the Utah Legislature, made to the people of Utah, count for anything?

Or does personal politics of House leaders and their caucus members rule the day, especially when reflecting legislators’ significant conflict of interest in how they get elected?