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The Utah County Republican Party will walk neighborhoods, send mailers and use whatever resources it has to help defeat three Republican candidates who gathered signatures to get on the primary ballot and force intraparty contests in June.
The move is a reinterpretation of a ban in the party constitution and a longstanding practice that prohibits the party and its leaders from choosing sides in Republican-versus-Republican primaries. But, Utah County GOP Chairman Craig Frank says, the signature-gathering path to the ballot available to candidates for the first time this year has forced the party to change its approach.
The party chose its nominees at the county convention last month, Frank says, not in the upcoming June 28 primary. Those candidates who gathered signatures to get to the primary did it in violation of the party's rules and, consequently, the party will not recognize them as eligible for the nomination.
"The entire [Utah Republican] organization can mobilize for the party's nominee, so we will provide lists, we will provide boots on the ground, we will provide [campaign material], whether it is distributed through volunteers knocking doors or mailing or other online and social-media support," Frank said. "We'll provide the things that the party can provide within its resource base."
Mike Brenny, one of the three legislative candidates who took the signature path to the primary, said he heard about the party's decision last week from a supporter who was at a gathering of party officials and thought the move smacked of Soviet-era party control.
"I'm disappointed that they take it in that direction and go to that extreme," said Brenny. "I think this creates a pretty big disadvantage. From what I've been told, they have 40 to 45 delegates who have committed their time to volunteering and door-knocking [against Brenny] and that's tough to go up against."
Brenny is running against Cory Maloy for the open seat that is currently held by Rep. Jake Anderegg, who is running for the Senate. At the county convention, Maloy had been forced to a primary with John Morris, but Morris later withdrew.
In another race, Payson Mayor Rick Moore gathered signatures to force a primary with Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem. And Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, trounced his Republican challenger, Xani Haynie, at the party convention, but Haynie had gathered enough signatures to force a primary.
"They've posted online that I'm not their nominee and that's very interesting considering I followed the law with signature-gathering," Haynie said. "My biggest thing is, we're better together and everyone should have a voice. The caucus is 112 people out of 9,000 registered Republicans in my district and I believe every opinion matters. … It's not that I disagree with the caucus system, because I went through it, but I disagree that the party is above the law."
Moore, likewise, said he thinks the decision should be made by the general public, and the caucus devotees want to keep that decision in the hands of the few delegates.
"That's all fine and dandy" if the party campaigns against him, Moore said. "They've gotta do what they've gotta do. I think they're feeling threatened right now a little bit and it's a shame it's coming down to that. … I think they feel like they're losing their grip on the entire [process], losing the whole thing."
The state Republican Party has not decided how to handle candidates who didn't go through the convention process, party Chairman James Evans said last week. That will be a topic of discussion at the GOP State Central Committee meeting on June 4.
In Salt Lake County, Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, would have been knocked out of his Senate bid at the convention, but gathered signatures to force a primary with Sen. Lincoln Fillmore. And in Davis County, Glen Jenkins will have a primary against Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, because of signature-gathering, after Edwards beat him at the convention.
The Davis County GOP is considering Edwards and Steve Hiatt, a county commission candidate who won handily and now is facing a primary with Randy Elliott, a signature-gathering candidate, to be the party nominees. Party officials are scheduled to meet next week to decide if that will translate into financial or other support from the party, according to the party's vice chairwoman, Natalie Gordon.
Rich McKeown is co-chairman for Count My Vote, whose ballot initiative effort to dump the convention system in favor of primary elections brought about the compromise in SB54 creating the signature-gathering path to the ballot. He said the candidates the Republican Party is now opposing got on the ballot in a "totally legal way," and it is up to voters to decide what system they want.
"No. 1, do they want a small, select group of people who are trying to preserve for themselves the right to make these decisions or do they want to give the people the right to vote?" McKeown said. "This is about choices now and it's about people deciding whether or not it's important that we preserve SB54 in a functional way that says people rather than delegates should make selections about candidates."
McKeown said Count My Vote intends to support candidates who gathered signatures and is trying to determine the best way to do that. The Count My Vote Political Action Committee gave $1,000 to Haynie's campaign and has given nearly $20,000 to a dozen signature-gathering candidates and SB54 supporters.
The Utah County Party's bylaws say that all party officers are required to maintain neutrality through the convention and the primary when there is a contest involving Republican candidates. And the party's constitution also says party bylaws and rules must comply with state law, which does allow for candidates to gather signatures.
But Frank said that SB54 and subsequent court rulings have muddied the waters and created a "bifurcated" Republican Party, where there can be official Republican nominees and challengers who happen to be Republicans.
"We're trying to navigate the definition of what it means to be a Utah County Republican Party candidate and nominee and somebody who is running outside of the organization, which is what Mike and Xani and [Moore] are doing," Frank said. "We will respect them as Republicans, but they have clearly determined to not associate themselves with the Republican Party's process."
Frank said by deciding to gather signatures, Brenny, Moore and Haynie have "determined that they don't need or want the resources of the party," and under the party's rules, party officials are obligated to support the Republican nominees who have gone through the convention process.