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Rolly: It's baaaack — rancor returns within Utah GOP

Published February 27, 2017 2:24 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Republican Party continues to wage war with itself.

That its governing body, the state central committee, voted Saturday to reverse an earlier stance and instead press on with a lawsuit against the Legislature's multipath system for nominating candidates demonstrates a dysfunction within the GOP that has fractured relationships between party bosses and their elected officials.

Because of a small contingent of zealots, based primarily in Utah County, the tail keeps wagging the dog. In fact, the most grueling battles for elected GOP officials have been not with Democrats but with the leaders of their own party.

Saturday's vote came in a special meeting that 46 of 180 central committee members sought. Utah GOP Chairman James Evans is compelled to convene a meeting outside the normal schedule if 25 percent of the members request it.

The central committee voted overwhelmingly Feb. 4 to drop the lawsuit because the Legislature met the conditions the party spelled out last August. But the hard-liners changed their minds and opted to continue a lawsuit that has devastated the party financially and spawned ill will between the party establishment and the Legislature.

Lawmakers passed SB54 in 2015 to stop a petition drive that would have forced onto the ballot an initiative to change the way candidates are nominated by their parties from a caucus-convention system to a direct primary.

The compromise legislation created several paths: the traditional convention route, signature gathering or both.

The party then sued, arguing that, as a private institution, it had the right to determine how its candidates would be nominated.

Because the GOP is suing its own Republican legislators, many of them have stopped supporting the party financially. They instead use their resources to help GOP candidates directly or establish political-action committees independent of the party.

To meet the party's conditions articulated last summer, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, crafted SB114, which would allow for a runoff vote if no candidate earned more than 35 percent in a primary. That was to address concerns that a nominee might emerge from a crowded field with just a fraction of GOP support.

The measure satisfied party insiders and led to the Feb. 4 decision to drop the lawsuit.

SB114 has cleared the Senate and is pending in the House.

But GOP zealots worry that the signature-gathering method — without vetting from the delegates chosen in small neighborhood caucus meetings — could lead to ideological impurity creeping into the party and diluting their own grip on power.

Several central committee members reasoned that, since the GOP has already appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the party might as well see what the final outcome will be.

They used a football analogy, arguing that the party has made it to the 5 yard line and it would be folly to give up the ball before trying to score.

But party leaders have lost at every level, in state court and federal court. So the better analogy is they have not moved the ball at all. They now face fourth down and 10 yards to go with the ball still on their side of the field. Coaches who go for it under those circumstances usually don't keep their jobs for long.

The party is $318,000 in debt to the lawyers who have carried the suit this far. Those attorneys have been joined by right-wing Utah County lawyer Morgan Philpot, a former legislator.

He and other lawyers say they will continue litigating for free on this case because they eventually will prevail, get attorney fees awarded to them and everyone will live happily ever after.







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