Bob Bernick’s Notebook: How the GOP Could Neuter SB54

bernick mugThe Utah Republican Party could well be on a course that politically would neutralize SB54 – the new candidate dual-path to the nomination law so hated by party leaders.

You notice I say politically neutralize.

That’s because the state GOP has lost every major legal issue to SB54 in the courts – both federal and the Utah Supreme Court.

So, failing in their legal claims that SB54 is unconstitutional, party leaders are laying the groundwork to effectively sidestep the new law in practical politics.


Follow my reasoning below, please:

— But first, a little history – the Count My Vote 2014 citizen initiative petition would have had only one way to the primary ballot – a 2 percent voter signature-gathering petition for each candidate.

The caucus/delegate/convention process could stay in place, but the delegates at the county and state level would have had no say (perhaps beyond an official endorsement) for any candidate.

Primary voters would pick the nominee – and in many cases choose the eventual officeholder because Utah is so GOP dominated.

— Republicans in the 2014 Legislature wanted to at least keep the caucus/delegate/convention route plausible, or possible.

So – taking a clue from previous CMV discussions – they drafted SB54, with a dual-route to a party primary.

A candidate could gather a set number of signatures to get on the ballot, could go through the traditional delegate/convention process, or both at the same time.

Under SB54 delegates could advance one or even two candidates to the primary ballot – but any candidate who got the required number of voter signatures would go to the ballot no matter what the delegates did to him or her.

Meanwhile, the state GOP, which never agreed to CMV or SB54, decided to fight anyway it could to keep ONLY the convention route to the primary ballot.

Under CMV and, to a lesser degree, perhaps, SB54, the arch-conservative GOP delegates – more conservative than rank-and-file Republican voters poll after poll shows – would have had less influence over Republican officeholders.

And that, in time, would lead to more moderate state policies — toward education, taxes, social issues, alcohol, medical marijuana – you name it.

And so state policies would more reflect the rank-and-file GOP voters who dominate our politics in the Beehive State.

A good thing, many people believe.

No so, say GOP leaders and the party delegates who want to keep their political power in their tight little fists.

So, losing all their legal battles, how do GOP leaders still keep delegates relevant – hopefully, even dominate – under SB54?

They can kick out of their party any GOP officeholder/candidate who doesn’t get at least 40 percent of their delegate votes in the convention.

Would that keep them off the primary ballot?

Not, says the Utah Election Office — if those candidates still get the required number of voter signatures under SB54, they are on the party primary ballot, paid for by taxpayers.

So, the primary election campaign could be a signature certified “GOP” candidate(s) – who is officially kicked out of the party – and one or two GOP candidates who got out of the delegate convention.

But imagine that campaign, if you will:

— The convention winner says, “I’m the only “official” Republican in the race. My primary opponent has been kicked out of the party – loyal Republicans, you can’t vote for him!”

And the signature-gathering GOP legislative incumbent tries to counter, “I may have been kicked out of the party, but I don’t recognize that. And neither does the law. And you shouldn’t either. I’ve been a Republican all my life, am a current Republican House member” and on and on.

No GOP officeholder will want to be in that position, politically speaking.

And it could get even worse, depending on state GOP leaders: They could deny the “kicked-out” candidate any primary election help, no money, no voter lists, no polling, no telephoning.

Imagine this: The party itself could run ads/fliers AGAINST the “kicked-out” candidate, or ads/fliers IN FAVOR of the delegate/convention candidate.

Facing that possible maelstrom, the GOP incumbent signature-gathering candidate and his Republican colleagues will file to go both the signature and convention route.

And – this is where the state GOP leaders win – all GOP officeholders will continue to have to kowtow to their arch-conservative delegates to make sure the candidate gets at least 40 percent of the delegate vote and doesn’t have to be kicked out of the party for violating party election bylaws, and face that difficult primary campaign rhetoric and consequences.

Under the above scenario, the delegates still rule.

They still have the psychological political power over the Republican Legislature, governor, and other GOP officeholders.

Under SB54, as upheld by the courts, the delegates couldn’t eliminate a signature-gathering candidate/officeholder.

But the party leaders could make the GOP officeholder’s political life so miserable – with the potential of being kicked out of the party and losing a combative primary election – that officeholders would just give up the ghost and vote in the Legislature like they always have – looking over their shoulders at the right-wing of their political party and possible delegate elections ahead.

SB54 would be in place, but the politics in the GOP-dominated Legislature and governor’s office don’t change.

Who could stop this tactic?

Well, the delegates could by telling their party leaders in the convention: Drop this crazy idea of kicking people out of the party and just follow SB54, which was passed by a Republican Legislature and signed by a Republican governor.

But do you really expect the delegates to willingly give up their political power?

No. It will be: Aye, aye, mateys, hard to the right and straight on ‘til morning.