SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney and Utah House and Senate Republicans talked about a GOP State Central Committee move to kick out some candidates who collect signatures to get on the primary election ballot during closed-door meetings Tuesday.
But the former Republican presidential nominee isn't wading into the controversy.
"I believe that I will be on the ballot. I'm not terribly concerned about that, given the sentiment of the people who proposed the most recent bylaw. They said they don't want the U.S. Senate race to be part of this effort," Romney told reporters after meeting separately with the GOP House and Senate caucuses.
Romney said he's going to let others deal with the politics within the party and the process for securing a nomination.
"Frankly, as someone who is kind of biased on this topic as a candidate, I'm not going to get involved in which side of the debate within the central committee will ultimately be successful," he said.
Romney is gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot and has said he would also participate in the caucus and convention process under Utah's dual-track system.
Last weekend, the GOP State Central Committee voted to expel candidates in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts who take the signature-gathering route. No one has declared an intent to do that at this point.
The possibly illegal rule does not affect candidates already signed up to run this year, but could have implications for federal, statewide, state legislative or State School Board elections in the future, should it remain in place.
Don Guymon, spokesman for the Utah Republican Party Constitutional Defense Committee, said the changes were made in consultation with lawyers and in compliance with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and Utah law.
Guymon contends SB54, a compromise bill Utah lawmakers passed in 2014 creating the two-track system, is unconstitutional. A federal judge upheld the law, but the Utah GOP has an appeal pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Republican candidates have been required to certify they will not violate party rules since 2015, but the bylaw lacked enforcement language, he said.
"Under the new bylaw language, a candidate who willingly files to run, using a method contrary to Republican Party rules, temporarily forfeits membership in the Party for the duration of the election cycle," according to Guymon.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said the party's attorney warned the committee against adopting the rule. He has met or is meeting with House and Senate Republicans, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, whose office oversees elections, and Gov. Gary Herbert to find a resolution.
Anderson said the central committee is trying to force another lawsuit with the bylaw change.
The Utah Republican Party declared itself a qualified political party under the law, which allows candidates to get on the primary election ballot by gathering petition signatures, going through the political party’s convention, or both.
The new rule could put the party's status in jeopardy, possibly hindering its ability to place candidates on the ballot.
"I think it's fair to say that the State Central Committee over the weekend violated state law, federal law and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. "Their actions were highly inappropriate."
McKell opened a bill file Tuesday should the Legislature need to step in. Republicans, he said, don't know what would happen if the Utah GOP were to lose its qualified political party status.
"We want to be prepared," he said, adding there is no language in the bill at this point. "We'll take the recommendations from the lieutenant governor's office and make sure that we protect the Republican Party, that the Republican Party continues to exist."
Alliance for a Better Utah called on Cox to decertify the Utah Republican Party if the changes to its bylaws are not repealed to conform with state election law.
“As much as the central committee members who passed this bylaw might want to revert to the caucus system as the sole route to the ballot, the reality is that state law tells all political parties that they must also allow candidates to access the ballot by gathering signatures," according to Better Utah founder Josh Kanter.
Romney was scheduled to meet with the Republican House and Senate caucuses before the bylaw controversy. He said after the closed meetings that they discussed shrinking populations in some rural Utah counties, as well as rapid growth in other areas.
Senate Republicans routinely close their caucus meetings, while the House GOP periodically closes its caucus, and did so Tuesday to discuss budget and tax issues.
"Oh, I think he was well-received," acting Senate Majority Leader Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said of Romney.
But Van Tasselll said the Senate Republicans will hear from another GOP candidate Friday, Tim Jimenez. "He's requested, so we'll have him in," he said.
Romney "talked about his vision and how he wants to work with us. Of course, you know that's all the right things to say," Van Tassell said.
Senators asked more than a half-dozen questions, including about public lands.
"He talked about some reforms he wants to see on public lands, getting at least more dialog," Van Tassell said.
Romney's visit was discussed at an early meeting, he said, and GOP senators voted unanimously to hear from him in caucus.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said not every candidate has been welcomed.
There was a bit of "blowup" over an invitation extended to 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, he said. Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson also addressed the caucus before the last election.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche