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The Utah Republican Party again rejected a series of reforms to the party's nominating process in a move that could trigger a threatened ballot initiative to overhaul the system for picking candidates.
Count My Vote, a group made up of several prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, argued the current system puts too much power in the hands of a small group of delegates, depresses turnout and leads to radicalization of Utah politics.
The group had said if changes weren't made, it would push for a ballot initiative likely by gathering signatures on a petition that would give candidates an alternative to going through the delegate process to get into a primary election.
At the Utah Republican Party State Convention on Saturday, GOP loyalists once again rejected any reform proposals, in particular a measure that would have required a candidate to get more than two-thirds of the delegate vote to avoid a primary.
The nearly 2,600 convention delegates also elected James Evans as the new state party chairman the first African-American to serve in the position replacing outgoing chairman Thomas Wright.
Republicans also approved a resolution opposing the Common Core, a set of education standards that conservatives believe are "un-American and inferior" and is an attempt by Washington to control Utah's education system.
Opponents argued the resolution was misleading and unnecessary, while supporters blasted the federal government for meddling in a state responsibility.
Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who lost to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson by 768 votes in November, formally announced she would again challenge Matheson in 2014.
Nomination battle • But the party's vote on the nominating reforms was the lighting rod of the day, and the vote to reject the changes left the Count My Vote group few alternatives to a ballot-initiative drive.
"It may require that kind of action," said Rich McKeown, Leavitt's former chief of staff. "I think we've kind of recognized that there was potential that we'd have to move forward, so we've worked with language and we've worked with potential donors … but our hope was always that there would be other ways to change the system."
McKeown said Count My Vote leaders will meet Monday to discuss their next step.
A poll of Republican caucus-goers commissioned by the state party found that 77 percent favored raising the threshold from 60 percent to 66 percent of the delegate vote or higher for a candidate to clinch the nomination without a primary election.
But delegates like Arturo Morales of Orem said that the party shouldn't cave to threats.
"The only reason for raising this threshold is meeting the demands of an elite group of Republicans and some Democrats," said Morales, who argued that instead of buckling under, the party should formulate a strategy to fight an initiative.
Lisa Shepherd, a delegate from Provo, said raising the nomination threshold would protect incumbents and make rural parts of the state, with fewer delegates, "flyover counties."
Republican National Committeewoman Enid Mickelsen, a former member of Congress, argued to the contrary that the party made a mistake more than a decade ago when it lowered the threshold from 70 percent, since it made it easier for incumbents to win the nomination without a primary.
Wright worked for months trying to broker a deal and shepherd the changes through the party's decision-making process, warning that if the party didn't act, the initiative would go forward and, if it gets on the ballot, would pass, gutting the caucus-convention system. He said threats from the Count My vote group that they would run the initiative if changes were agreed to left delegates feeling like they were being "blackmailed" and made to "bow down" to party elites. As a result, the changes didn't get fully debated on their merits.
New leaders• Evans won a convincing victory as the new Utah Republican Party chairman, capturing nearly 60 percent of the vote in the three-way race that pitted him against Wasatch County GOP leader Aaron Gabrielson and Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly head Marco Diaz.
Evans, who owns the Checkline chain of payday lending stores, served as Salt Lake County chairman from 2005 to 2009 and touted his experience and record as a reason for electing him to the state party post.
Evans had the backing of several prominent Republicans, including Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and several other state legislators and elected officials.
Raised in South Carolina, Evans told how he became a Republican at age 18 after hearing Ronald Reagan speak a move that upset his parents, who were Democrats. Today, Evans said, they are also Republicans.
Former Washington County Republican Chairman Willie Billings was elected as the state party's next vice chairman, and Michelle Mumford was chosen as the new party secretary. Dave Crittenden was unopposed as party treasurer.
Evans said he shares the aim of increasing voter participation, which he sad Count My Vote organizers are promoting and he believes the party can increase turnout and voter involvement while still preserving its caucus-convention system.
"You end up with a more representative delegate base with the more people you have attending the caucuses," Evans said.
Evans inherits the helm of a party that dominates Utah's political landscape, holding all five state offices, a dominant majority in the Utah Legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and three of the four congressional seats.
But it is also a party that has experienced divisions between its tea party conservative and moderate factions.
And Wright, in his farewell speech to the convention, said that while the party's dominance is not threatened, the party needs to learn to reach out to various demographic groups to maintain their margins.
"The way to convince people we care about them is to actually care about them," Wright said.
Attorney General John Swallow, who is in the midst of a withering political scandal, attended the convention and received encouragement from several delegates as he shook hands and passed out a letter touting his office's accomplishments. He was the only elected state official not to address the convention, but he said he is being more productive than ever.
"Now when I get into the office in the morning, I don't even read the papers. I just get right to work," he said.