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Former Gov. Mike Leavitt campaigns with GOP candidates shunned by own party

PLEASANT GROVE — In some of Utah County's GOP primaries, it's more than just Republicans pitted against Republicans. It's Republicans versus the Republican Party.

That's because Utah County Republican Party leadership doesn't like Utah's new election law. And because of that, they aren't supporting three Republican candidates who gathered signatures under that law to gain access to the primary ballot, forcing a primary with their opponents who won at the county's caucus convention in April.

To Count My Vote supporter and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, that's creating an "unfortunate divide" within the Republican party over SB54, Utah's new election law designed to increase access for candidates to the ballot, give more Utahns more choices, and place voting power back into the hands of voters rather than party delegates.

"Better choices mean better government," Leavitt said. "You tell me what's better — someone who gets a thousand signatures to say, 'Let me on the ballot,' or someone who gets 66 votes from people who have been hand-picked?"

To give support where the Utah County GOP won't, Leavitt on Friday campaigned alongside several candidates who gathered signatures under SB54. Candidates included Mike Brenny, House District 6, in Lehi; Xani Haynie, House District 57, in Pleasant Grove; and Payson Mayor Richard Moore, House District 67.

Leavitt's aim: inform voters that June 28 will mark the first election they will be able to participate in the state's new party nomination process, and urge them to support the candidates who are "pioneering this new way to the ballot."

"The delegates do have their voice, but everybody in my district should have a vote," said Haynie while on the campaign trail Friday. "That's what it's about to me. My dedication to not just the party, but (also) the constituents and really bringing in everybody together. Everyone should have a voice."

Haynie gathered 800 signatures to force a primary with Rep. Brian Green, R-Pleasant Grove, who defeated her at convention. She said she respects the caucus system but also believes candidates should have another route because her district's 9,000 registered Republicans should be able to weigh in, too, rather than just 120 delegates who voted in her race.

Haynie said while the Utah County Republican Party "campaigns against" her, she'd rather focus on talking about issues that people care about — like panhandling or road maintenance — rather than the party's bylaws.

"I've had people (on the campaign trail) open the door and give me a hug because they know that I value their opinion," she said. "That's what keeps me going."

Utah County GOP Chairman Craig Frank defended the party's choice to only support candidates who won nominations at the county convention — not those who gained a spot on the ballot by gathering signatures — because he said the party supports its "time-tested, well-established system" to vet nominees.

According to GOP bylaws, nominees are chosen by delegates at the convention, so those who gathered signatures under the new law aren't abiding by the party's rules and that's why the party won't support them as eligible for the nomination, he said.

To Frank, that decision isn't dividing the party, only reinforcing its rules.

"I don't see it as an issue. We're an open party. We provide open doors under very few and logically specific mandates. Any private organization would have criteria for being a member," he said. "If you don't agree with our platform, then I would suggest you consider some other option."

Leavitt pointed out that while 56 percent of Republican voters are female, women make up only 24 percent of delegates, and that's why, he said, there are only six Republican women in the Utah Legislature.

But Frank said Count My Vote supporters are "misrepresenting" the party's caucus system, which he said is designed to allow constituents to pass their opinions directly to delegates who represent their neighborhoods.

“Those who actually believe that we’re trying to divide the party should give us a call, talk to us on the phone, talk to a party leader," he said. "And I would suggest those individuals who feel like their voice isn’t being heard to talk to party leadership. We can easily refer them to a precinct chairman or a delegate.”

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1