Utah’s Republican Party faces a crossroads. It is nearly $400,000 in debt because party leadership has insisted on continuing a legal fight to keep the Legislature and governor’s office (both controlled by Republicans) from weakening its convention and caucus system for nominating candidates.
The party’s new chair, Rob Anderson, announced Wednesday he is dropping a lawsuit against the state law that helped permit ballot access through both a signature gathering process and the party caucus and convention system. The bill is popularly known by its bill number, SB 54.
To drop the party’s lawsuit against the bill, Anderson is relying on a party rule that allows officers to make decisions that keep the party out of long-term debt. But hard-liners on the party’s Central Committee may try to fire Anderson over this decision when they meet Saturday.
That would be a mistake. Anderson has demonstrated clear thinking on this subject, while members of the party’s Central Committee have shown an inability to think through the likely outcome of their actions.
Why would the party drop its lawsuit when all that remains is for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to render a verdict? The quick answer is that even a victory for the party would be a loss for its rank-and-file members who are not elected as convention delegates.
Perhaps more important for the party’s long-term future, however, is the realization that this legal fight has emboldened the foes of the convention system. A petition drive known as Count My Vote is gearing up to put an initiative on 2018 ballots that aims to remove the convention nominating system entirely and replace it with a petition process.
If successful, this would hand party hard-liners a complete defeat.
Dropping the suit now, however, would give the party a chance of hanging on to a compromise that preserves at least some of the power of the convention system. It would likely take some of the steam out of the petition drive. By passing SB 54, lawmakers headed off an earlier Count My Vote initiative drive that seemed likely to succeed. SB 54 helped preserve the convention system while adding a signature-gathering option for candidates to access primary ballots.
That compromise led to the nomination of Provo Mayor John Curtis in a recent primary race for the state’s 3rd Congressional District. Voters chose Curtis over the party’s convention choice, Chris Herrod, illustrating the difference between convention delegates and regular party voters.
The caucus and convention system once gave delegates total control over the nomination process. Candidates could advance to general election ballots if they gained the support of at least 60 percent of delegates. As a result, under the system candidates faced few primary elections.
And because the Republican Party largely dominates politics in Utah, Republican candidates sometimes go unopposed in the general election, giving voters little choice.
The people who are elected convention delegates tend to skew toward more hard-line elements of the party (the same is true for Democratic delegates). As a result, candidates frequently do not represent the views of the greater party membership base.
SB 54 is by no means perfect, but it’s helped preserve parts of both systems. A successful initiative process would likely leave party delegates with nothing — except, of course, mounting legal debts. Anderson deserves credit for understanding the stakes and wanting to preserve the compromise. The state Central Committee needs to understand that it is waging a losing battle.