GOP lawmakers are struggling to come to a consensus on how to deal with a controversial and probably illegal bylaw passed by a small group of right-wing zealots on the GOP State Central Committee on Saturday.
And the result could mean Utah Democrats are poised to make some big gains in November.
At issue is a rule change that prohibits candidates in CD1 and CD2 from gathering signatures to get on the ballot. Any candidate who takes the signature path in those contests would have their party membership revoked. That's a violation of the Utah Republican Party's status as a Qualified Political Party (QPP), which requires them to allow candidates to either gather signatures or use the caucus and convention system.
The original SB54 language, which established the dual path system, says if a party does not fulfill the requirements to be a QPP, then they automatically become an RPP, which means the only path to the ballot for candidates is by gathering signatures.
There was a thought among those SCC members who rammed the change through that state law was not written to deal with a QPP that just refuses to comply with the rules. However, SB54 has that covered, because it defines a QPP as an RPP that allows the dual path to the primary ballot. The default for all political parties is RPP status.
Lawmakers originally planned to call the bluff of those 51 hardline Republicans who pushed through the change by dropping the party to RPP status, forcing them to blink to save their beloved caucus/convention path for candidates this year. But, since that's already in state code, they don't have a lot of wiggle room.
Unless lawmakers find a way out of this mess, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will have the ultimate say. State law says, because of their actions, the GOP loses QPP status. That nixes the convention path for this year. If he refuses to act, the Democratic Party would almost assuredly sue and likely win, forcing Republicans down the signature path. Some believe that such a lawsuit might even disqualify the GOP from ballot access, forcing all of the candidates to run independently, but that would be an extreme outcome. Some also think the move by the SCC to violate state law opens a path for Democrats to challenge every Republican candidate to possibly toss them off the ballot.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said Thursday afternoon that he is not yet ready to introduce a bill, whose goal is to fix somehow the mess last Saturday’s GOP Central Committee action put the party and Republican lawmakers into.
One option, said McKell, is to do nothing.
“That puts the party and some candidates at risk,” he said. “But it is an option.”
McKell said he wants to measure the support in his House GOP caucus before moving forward.
To pass a bill that takes effect immediately upon the governor's signature, it must pass both the House and Senate with a 2/3 majority. That means 50 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate. UtahPolicy.com is told that Senate Republicans took a straw poll in their caucus, and all 24 Republicans would be on board with a remedy. However, the House is nowhere near the 50 votes they would need, and they don't think they'll get any of the 13 Democrats to help them.
An immediate effective date is required in case GOP candidates who were not seeking the voter signature route would have time to collect signatures by a mid-April deadline.
Wednesday, in a closed caucus meeting, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state election officer, met with House Republicans for some time. Nothing was decided there, UtahPolicy.com is told.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, told UtahPolicy.com Thursday morning that he’s not ready to say his 13-member caucus will help or not.
“First off, whatever happens, needs to be good policy for Utah, not just for Republicans or Democrats,” said King.
King admitted that there might be some urge by Democrats to just let Republicans twist in the wind since it is their party’s right-wingers on the CC that has caused this problem.
But Democrats want to be responsible, he added, and once they see the fix, they may have some votes for it.
The Utah GOP declared they would be a QPP for the 2018 election cycle in November of last year, which was the deadline for that decision. There is some discussion among lawmakers to amend state code to say any actions taken by a party that would not comply with the QPP requirements after that date don't count. That would keep the Utah GOP as a QPP, and both signature and convention candidates would be able to file for office.
But, such a move would almost assuredly bring a lawsuit from Democrats or other parties claiming the legislature only passed the law to protect Republican candidates. If that suit succeeds, then the GOP would once again revert to an RPP, with only the signature path available to candidates. Lawmakers may add a provision to extend the signature-gathering deadline for candidates if that happens.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert said a “Strong, vocal” group in the state Central Committee, “in their zeal to overturn SB54” passed what he considers a "bad policy” choice. “I’m dismayed by that.”
Herbert said it's not fair to candidates to change the rules — SB54 — “in the middle of the game. Now the Utah Republican Party “is in conflict” with state law, which has the potential to “throw us into litigation again.”
That's clearly what the so-called "Gang of 51" wants. So far, they've been unsuccessful in their legal efforts to overturn SB54. They do have an appeal in federal court pending right now. The prevailing thought right now is they'll lose that appeal, leaving only the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, Republicans on the Hill see Saturday's action as a way to give the caucus/convention hardliners "another bite at the apple" so to speak, provoking new legal action.
Those lawsuits threaten to upend the entire 2018 election cycle for Republicans in the state. The window to file for office opens the day after the 2018 Legislature ends. Neighborhood caucus meetings are on March 20, with GOP county and state conventions taking place in the month following.
So far, only 23 House GOP incumbents have filed to gather signatures to get on the ballot, while 8 Senate Republican incumbents have done the same. Candidates can still decide to gather signatures during the actual filing period, but that doesn't leave much time for them to get there.