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Following the lead of the Utah County Republican Party, GOP officials in Salt Lake and Davis counties are abandoning tradition and taking sides in contested races before the June 28 primary for convention winners against candidates who qualified for the ballot by gathering signatures.
The Salt Lake County Republican Party sent an email Wednesday supporting Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, because he won 60 percent of delegate votes at the April 16 county convention, and encouraging party members to work for him against challenger Rich Cunningham, a current Utah Republican House member.
The Davis County Republican Party, meanwhile, gave $500 to Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, in her re-election race against challenger Glen Jenkins, said county GOP Chairman Robert Anderson. He also said he personally supported her in a tweet, though his personal Twitter account does not include a direct endorsement of Edwards.
For the first time, candidates this year could qualify for the primary either by collecting signatures or through the traditional caucus-convention system because of a law change in SB54. The state GOP challenged SB54 in court, but it has been upheld so far. Now, county parties are choosing to reward candidates who won at the convention to the detriment of those who went the signature route.
Utah County GOP Chairman Craig Frank created a stir earlier this month when he said candidates who gathered signatures did so in violation of party rules, so the party considers those who won at the convention as its official nominees and is working against their challengers.
Cunningham says Salt Lake County GOP officials violated their rules that call for neutrality until after the primary when they sent an email to members in Senate District 10 in support of Fillmore and urged them to work for him.
"They have never changed their rules," he said. Cunningham added that upset voters called him when they received the party's email, "and the response has been overwhelming. They are tired and fed up of a small group making a decision" for all.
He sent his own email to about 7,000 Republicans. It said, in part, "I haven't been the type of elected official who 'tows [sic] the line' with the party leadership and takes their instruction very well. I didn't represent the Republican Party bosses when I served in the House and I won't represent them in the Senate. I will represent you."
Salt Lake County GOP Chairwoman Suzanne Mulet said the party's initial email "made a plain statement of fact Sen. Fillmore is our candidate because he won at convention." She added in a text message, "Per our bylaws, the person who exits convention with 60 percent is our official candidate."
She added, "Supporting our convention candidate does not equal working against Rich. ... I'm not going to work against a fellow Republican when he has chosen this alternate route."
Fillmore won 60 percent at the convention by one vote over Cunningham, who also collected signatures to guarantee a spot on the primary ballot. Cunningham said he has filed a protest because one delegate vote at the convention was discarded as spoiled, because a person had scratched out his initial vote and wrote in Cunningham's name. "That would have changed the outcome," he said.
Cunningham voted against SB54 in the Legislature. But he said that, like Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee and others, he decided to collect signatures to cover his bases because the law was unsettled amid legal challenges.
Fillmore said his win by a supermajority at the convention "is an indicator that Republican Party delegates that were elected by their neighbors strongly support me, and they are the party. This isn't the party leadership making an endorsement. These are the party delegates."
Meanwhile, in Davis County, Jenkins said he does not believe party leaders' actions there "are particularly fair, and I think they should remain neutral." He adds that he is finding that endorsement by party leaders matters little to most voters with whom he talks.
In a twist, Jenkins opposed SB54 to allow collecting signatures, while his opponent, Edwards, supported it. Both collected signatures to qualify for the ballot, but Edwards defeated Jenkins at the convention, 72 percent to 28 percent.
Anderson, the Davis County GOP chairman, said his party changed rules earlier this year to officially endorse winners of the convention. The party gave $500 to Edwards in her race against Jenkins, he said, and similarly gave $500 to County Commission candidate Steve Hiatt, who faces Randy Elliott, who qualified for the primary by gathering signatures.
Because the party has endorsed these candidates, party officials need not remain neutral.
He said the GOP plans to use social media to promote candidates who won at the convention.
"We're still trying to make the convention relevant in this new election law," Anderson said. "This is obviously new to everyone. We're not out there to try to put one person above another. We want things to be run fairly. That's the mindset we have. We're not negatively campaigning against those who collect signatures."
Edwards said the party offering a "stamp of approval" for convention winners shows "that it means something to go through the caucus and convention. If there's no benefit, no indication that you've been vetted by delegates, then I think there's some legitimate reason to think we may have fewer candidates choose that route."
A Utah Policy poll of 588 registered voters released earlier this week found that 71 percent oppose parties endorsing candidates before the primary, 19 percent approve and 10 percent are undecided.
The state GOP has not decided how to handle candidates who did not go through the convention process. Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans has said that will be a topic of discussion at the GOP State Central Committee meeting June 4.