Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is caught in the middle of a fight between a rogue group of Republicans on the GOP State Central Committee and state election law.
At issue is a bylaw passed by the SCC last month that blatantly violates state election law. The illegal change prohibits Republican candidates from gathering signatures in the race for CD1 and CD2 this year. If they do, the new bylaw says they will have their membership in the Republican party stripped.
Cox says he will just ignore any such requests from the Utah GOP or any party.
"Last year the Utah Republican Party gave my office a formal declaration that they would use the dual path for candidates. Nothing in the law allows them to change that," says Cox.
The 51 members of the GOP Central Committee are hoping to spark another lawsuit over the SB54 compromise crafted in 2014, which allows candidates to use the convention system, gather signatures, or both to get on the ballot. Previous suits against SB54 have failed in state and federal court, and this move would give them another bite at the apple.
"This is a very dangerous game they're playing," says Cox. "To openly defy the law is extremely risky."
Risky indeed. There's a chance if this goes to court, a judge could decide to leave the candidates on the ballot, but not protect the GOP, forcing Republicans to run as independents in 2018. That would almost assuredly lead to the party losing a massive number of state legislative seats this year, a nightmare outcome for a party that dominates the state.
Cox says he's extremely disappointed that some leaders in his chosen party have decided to act so recklessly, but in his job as the state's top election officer, he can't take partisan sides.
"I am disappointed because I was a big proponent of the caucus/convention system," he says. "But I'm bound, and they are bound by state law. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. I don't care who it is; my job is to uphold the law."
It's not clear that this fight will even get all the way to his office, as there may be an internal battle within the GOP over whether the change is even valid. That could head things off before they get started.
But, that's not a comfort to potential candidates who are wondering what the change means for them. Cox says candidates have been calling his office every day trying to parse how this will affect them.
"I assure them my office will protect them, saying the rules of the game that were in place when they chose to run will still be there," says Cox.
But he does give them one big caveat.
"I also have to be honest with them that, if this gets to a judge, it's out of my hands."