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The Utah Republican Party held a rare Sunday news conference to announce even more rare plans to lobby the Legislature into revoking a new law passed by huge GOP margins last year that would change how parties select nominees.
Adding to the rarity, the party also announced it conducted a poll to help it argue that most Republicans and Utahns feel lawmakers made a mistake saying two-thirds of Republicans support a lawsuit that the party already filed against the law.
Then, for a final Sunday twist, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted that he "would like to apologize on behalf" of the party "for inexplicably holding a Sunday" news conference. "Sunday should be about families, not politics," he tweeted.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans appeared with 16 legislators and party officials to say the GOP will ask lawmakers to revoke the law, which was a compromise that led supporters of the Count My Vote initiative to drop their efforts to ask voters to switch to a system of choosing party nominees through a direct primary.
SB54 allows candidates to appear on a primary ballot if they collect enough signatures, sort of a direct primary. But it also preserves the caucus-convention system to allow candidates to qualify for the ballot through party conventions.
The law also requires parties to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries, which Democrats have long allowed but Republicans have not since 2002. About 44 percent of Utah voters are such independents.
The party has sued, saying SB54 violates its constitutional right of association by interfering with how it selects nominees.
Now it will also lobby against the bill, Evans said. He adds the party plans to wage an "education campaign" opposing SB54.
The party released results of a poll it conducted that said 67 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of all voters support the party's lawsuit challenging the bill to clarify it. It also said just 40 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of all Utahns support SB54.
"The statements that you have heard that somehow this is an extreme minority effort [to challenge SB54] does not bear out in the polling itself," Evans said.
Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, questioned the accuracy of the GOP's poll. "Polls taken by pollsters who are respected in this community have reflected that in the neighborhood of 70 percent of the voters supported a change in the system and that it would increase voter participation."
Does McKeown think Republican leaders are attempting a bait-and-switch to get Count My Vote to withdraw its efforts by passing SB54, with leaders now pushing to revoke that law? "It's starting to feel that way," McKeown said.
He added that the Republican Party actions now "show a really poor reflection on their respect for the Legislature that predominately represents their party."
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he will introduce a constitutional amendment that would revoke SB54 if passed by the Legislature and voters. Also, he is pushing SB43, which would erase the requirement to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries.
"SB54 created a compromise that hurt the party," Jenkins said. "I think it's our obligation as Republicans … to do the best we can to prevent that from being implemented."
Evans said the law's tight time frame may not give Republicans enough time to change their bylaws in ways it requires before the 2016 election. He said that could force Republicans to run on the ballot as unaffiliated candidates, without any official Republican slate.
Jenkins has said Count My Vote was run by people who want to keep a rich, elite group in charge of Utah politics by forcing primaries that favor the rich.
McKeown countered that, saying "There is a small group of people" in GOP leadership "who object to losing control of the election system and want to keep it for themselves."
Evans said revoking SB54 is so important that it conducted the rare Sunday media event because "the gravity of the situation mandates" it.
"Clearly you can see that this is extraordinary for the Utah Republican Party itself to take such extraordinary measures to express difficulty it has with a bill that was passed overwhelmingly by the Republican-controlled Legislature," he said.
But he said it is possible for Republicans to disagree on a matter "and ultimately come to a better resolution, which I am confident we will ultimately get to."
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