Telling UtahPolicy.com “this crap has got to stop,” former GOP state House member Rich Cunningham says he’s “frustrated” that the Utah Republican Party won’t allow him to use the party’s non-profit mailing status to send out brochures in his intra-party challenge to Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.
This is the second time Cunningham has run against Fillmore within the GOP, losing to him four years ago in a primary.
Just after the state and county Republican Party conventions held in April, state chairman Derek Brown told UtahPolicy.com that no decision had yet been made on whether the state GOP bosses would follow party bylaws, which say the only official party candidates are those who come out of state and county conventions -- basically ignoring candidates who gather enough Republican registered voter signatures via SB54 to make a party primary election.
Apparently that decision has been made. In Facebook exchanges made recently between Cunningham and Brown, Brown says only “convention” candidates will get party “resources” -- defined, at least for now, as allowing candidates to use the party’s non-profit mailing status.
Through text messages, Brown tells UtahPolicy.com that party bylaws don’t allow someone who losses at the convention to use the party’s non-profit email discounts.
Both Cunningham and Fillmore successfully gathered the 2,000 GOP signatures needed to make the June 30 ballot. But Fillmore beat Cunningham 66-34 percent among delegates in the Salt Lake County Convention. Under party convention rules, a candidate has to get at least 40 percent to come out of the delegate convention to the primary.
Cunningham tells UtahPolicy.com that that non-profit status would save him 40 percent on mailers -- which he is trying to send out to District 10 GOP voters. The primary election is June 30; under an order passed by a special legislative session, the primary will be mail-in ballots only, which start to go out next week.
“Several Republicans are saying I’m not a real Republican,” said Cunningham. “I’m the most Republican candidate you can find. I’m a conservative who served as a Republican in the House.”
Brown said the party is not telling him that at all. But the bylaws are clear: A GOP candidate can use the non-profit mailing discount before the party convention as long as the mailer is “an informative mailer about themselves, not an attack piece against their opponent.”
Cunningham said he’s trying to tap into the discontent by many voters over the unsuccessful “tax reform” effort passed in December, repealed in January, by the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
Cunningham said he tried to get the state party to mail out a flier for his campaign before the convention in which he took Fillmore to task for some of his votes. But the party refused, saying it was a “negative” piece and wouldn’t be allowed by party rules, said Cunningham.
Then, Cunningham said, he then tried to get the party to mail out a new piece after the county convention that only talks about his stands on various issues.
“But (the party) refused, again, saying I didn’t come out of convention -- where I followed the law (SB54) and took both routes at the same time,” said Cunningham. “They said I wasn’t a convention candidate” because he didn’t get a least 40 percent of the delegate vote in District 10.
Between the convention and the primary election, if a candidate didn’t come out of the convention, then he can’t use the party’s mailing discount, said Brown. That’s the situation that Cunningham now finds himself, Brown added.
“This crap is the reason so many people have left the (Republican) party,” said Cunningham, who said he “loves and respects” both the party itself and Brown individually.
“I know the tough place (Brown) is in,” said Cunningham, who added he got a call back from Brown Monday, the first time the pair have spoken in some time.
“I know there is a (GOP) congressional candidate,” said Cunningham, in District 4, whom he wouldn’t name, who is behind in the polls and is pushing the party to support only candidates who come out of the convention, because this person did and is behind a U.S. House GOP challenger who is on the ballot only because of signatures -- like Cunningham is.
But “so many” of the GOP voters he’s talking to are sick of the party elite taking sides in intra-party challenges, said Cunningham.
“I know this; this is what they are telling me -- they have left the party over this stuff,” said Cunningham.
“I don’t support” the party elite. “I don’t support Senate (GOP) leadership. I’m my own man,” said Cunningham.
As is often the case, GOP senators and Senate leadership support incumbents seeking re-election. The Senate GOP PAC has given Fillmore $5,000 and fellow GOP senators have kicked in around $10,000 to Fillmore, reports show.
Updated financial disclosures show Cunningham as raised around $20,000 and spent most of it.
Fillmore has raised around $59,000, spent $29,800.
Cunningham spent nearly $8,000 with a private firm to collect the required 2,000 signatures.
Fillmore doesn’t list a specific signature collecting expense in his reports, but he spent $28,000 with one firm for campaign help and resources.
Cunningham said around 6,900 people in District 10 signed the anti-tax reform referendum that was well on its way to making the November ballot when GOP legislative leaders and Herbert decided to just repeal the new tax reform law, which, among many things, would have restored the complete state sales tax on unprepared food.
Cunningham said 3,100 of those signatures came from GOP voters in District 10, and he said he’s trying to put together a group of those folks to vote for him June 30. Fillmore voted for tax reform in December, and for repeal in January.
In the 2016 District 10 primary, Fillmore beat Cunningham, 54.9 percent to 45.1 percent, or by 967 votes.
So, clearly, if Cunningham can put together some kind of anti-reform tax coalition among GOP voters, he could have a chance against Fillmore this year.
But he’s not going to get any help from the state party in that effort, since bylaws don’t allow the party to help any candidate who didn’t come out of the convention, regardless whether they got on the primary ballot via SB54.
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments from GOP Chairman Derek Brown and for clarifications from Cunningham].