Utah GOP Still Tying Itself in Knots Over SB54

GOP Logo 04Could we see the Utah Republican Party formally endorse Jonathan Johnson, the GOP challenger to Gov. Gary Herbert, who says he’s been “a Republican all of my life?”

It’s possible.

In fact, when the party’s 170-member Central Committee meets in June, Party Chairman James Evans says he will ask the group to consider changing party bylaws to allow the party to endorse a Republican candidate in a contested primary.

Party rules now explicitly outlaw such an endorsement or any kind of favoritism for a candidate before the party’s official nominee is decided – although more than a few county and state party leaders may have crossed those lines in the past.

Johnson and Herbert face off in a June 28 primary election, with the winner the vast favorite to lead the state for the next four years.

This all comes about because of SB54, and the state GOP’s failure to get both a federal court and the Utah Supreme Court to declare the new dual-route-to-a-primary law unconstitutional.

In a well-received speech to party delegates at Saturday’s Utah Republican State Convention, Evans explained why the party has so vigorously fought against SB54, what the various court rulings now mean, and how the party could proceed.

In a brief interview with UtahPolicy backstage at the Salt Palace meeting, Evans said nothing is settled currently.

The Central Committee could decide to do nothing. Could choose to do something after the June 28 primary election.

Or could decide to change the primary bylaws and endorse one or more candidates before the primary.

Evans told the convention Federal Judge David Nuffer’s latest ruling, coming just days ago, specifically keeps party leaders from kicking anyone out of party membership if they fail to get 40 percent of a convention delegate vote, but are certified by the Utah Elections Office to the June party primary via the signature route.

But, said Evans, Nuffer’s ruling doesn’t affect other actions the party may take.

For example, each candidate – a signature-gatherer or convention-only – still must sign a candidate declaration with the party; still must sign a pledge to abide by all party rules and regulations, which includes a promise to go through the caucus/delegate/convention route.

Thus, should the CC change bylaws (those members DON’T have to get approval from convention delegates to change the bylaws) and allow party endorsements, it would be possible for party leaders to endorse a convention-only candidate over a signature-gathering candidate if that signature-gathering candidate didn’t finish first in the delegate voting.

That’s the case with Herbert, who got 45 percent of Saturday’s delegate vote compared to Johnson’s 55 percent.

While that’s possible, it is more likely that the CC, should it make any decision on pre-primary, would give an endorsement(s) to candidates who got more than 60 percent of delegate vote —  only to find themselves still in a primary with a fellow Republican who went only the signature route (and wasn’t voted on in convention at all) or took both courses at the same time, but failed to get the convention threshold of 40 percent of delegate vote.

Herbert doesn’t fall into that second category since he got more than 40 percent (he got 45 percent) of the delegate vote Saturday.

Still, there are a few of those signature-gathering candidates out there.

For example, in the Davis County Convention, incumbent Rep. Becky Edwards got 72 percent of the delegate vote in her Bountiful House District 20.

Her opponent, Glen Jenkins, got less than 40 percent of the vote. But Jenkins is certified to the ballot for gathering the 1,000 GOP voters needed.

Ironically, Edwards is a supporter of SB54 and has so voted several times in the Legislature. She also went the signature and convention route this year, as did Jenkins.

So a supporter of SB54 is forced into an intra-party primary via the new law. Evans may be smiling over that one.

The CC could decide to endorse a primary-bound Republican, like Edwards, over a candidate who would have otherwise been eliminated in the convention.

Nuffer ruled that the Utah GOP could not place any such endorsement on the official primary ballot and that any Republican who qualified via signatures must get the same primary ballot treatment as a convention-certified candidate.

But the party, if it decides to endorse a candidate, could take any number of public steps, including:

— Taking out billboards and send out fliers to voters telling them of the party’s official endorsement.

— Give endorsed candidates party help, from cash donations, help with walking the district, voter I.D., telephoning into GOP voter homes and more.

— Actually campaign AGAINST the GOP signature candidate, telling Republican voters that that candidate had violated internal party bylaws by taking the signature route, and so on.

In his convention speech, Evans asked if the party endorsing a primary candidate who followed party rules over a GOP candidate who didn’t (a signature candidate.)

“I don’t think that is too much to ask. Do you?”

More than a few cheers from the delegate audience.

“This is just the party using its freedom of assembly and free speech,” said Evans.

Evans admitted that the state GOP fighting against SB54 has harmed fundraising, among other party activities.

He set up a special fund where legal support is paid from, and he assured delegates that normal contributions to the party’s main fund do not pay court and attorney costs in fighting the new law.

He asked each of the 4,000 delegates – most of whom support the party’s anti-SB54 battles – to donate $25 each or to raise $25 each from other Republicans.

That would provide $100,000 to party coffers. And the party needs it, as UtahPolicy has recently detailed.

So, in the June CC meeting, committee members will look at further restricting or defining party membership. And consider pre-primary candidate endorsements. Where either may go is still unclear.

But it is clear the Utah Republican Party’s battle against SB54 continues.