SALT LAKE CITY — Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said Wednesday he's not seeking a second term as party leader, as some Republicans continue to fight over a controversial election law despite losing their legal challenge.
"Why? I'm not the guy," Anderson said. "I would be a hinderance to the party reuniting and unifying, so I think it's probably best that someone else do it. … My call for unity kind of fell on deaf ears."
Phill Wright, a longtime opponent of the 2014 election law known as SB54 who ran against Anderson two years ago for party chairman, said he's planning to get in the race.
Last Saturday members of the party's governing State Central Committee censured Anderson because he did not submit a bylaw last year to the state that sought to punish some candidates for gathering voter signatures to get on a primary ballot.
Anderson said the bylaw was illegal because signature-gathering is an alternative to the party's traditional caucus and convention candidate nomination system permitted under SB54.
A 40-page confidential report into the incident obtained by the Deseret News said there was "ample justification to remove" Anderson but recommended censure in part because ousting him now "could be viewed as an underhanded political move."
Anderson said the censure was not a factor in his decision.
Some 4,000 delegates will choose a party chairman at the May 4 state Republican Party convention. Anderson said he is not backing a candidate "at this time." So far, Sylvia Miera-Fisk of Davis County has filed.
Later Wednesday, Wright, a member of the GOP State Central Committee, said he plans to run for party chairman.
"I appreciate that the party has exhausted its options to litigate a law that I do believe is unconstitutional," Wright said. "Right now, I think it's important that we move on and focus on promoting our platform and electing Republican candidates."
SB54 has been upheld in local federal district court as well as the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. A group of Republicans on the State Central Committee failed earlier this year to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.
Wright declined to comment on last Saturday's committee meeting but said if he is elected Republican Party chairman, his role will be "to follow the direction of the governing body."
Asked if would continue to work to end SB54 as party chairman, Wright said "if the state Legislature decided they wanted to repeal SB54, I would support that. That would be great. But that is not going to be my focus."
If elected, he said he's "going to actively work to unite our party." Wright said he hasn't been fighting against the Republican Party, but for it, by defending the right of GOP leaders to determine who gets on the ballot.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said that "because of the fight over SB54, the job of party chairperson is extraordinarily difficult and thankless."
There is a "group of people who are simply pushing this issue at the exclusion of almost every other interest of the party," Karpowitz said, including most members of the GOP-controlled Legislature and voters
"That's just not a recipe for healthy party governance," he said, and over time, it could weaken the GOP. "If the party gets a reputation for nominating extreme candidates or fiscal irresponsibility at the party level in the state, then that's problematic."
Anderson said whoever is elected to lead the Utah GOP "is going to have a very difficult tenure." He said his hope that the SB54 battle would end when the Supreme Court declined the case "is probably not a reality."
The volunteer post, Anderson said, has given him "a new appreciation for some of the criticisms our elected officials are subject to. Does it feel like a firing squad? Absolutely, sometimes."