SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone trying to call the downtown offices of the Utah Republican Party in the week since the election of a new leadership teamcouldn't get through because the phone bill hadn't been paid.
"It's worse than we anticipated, just the volume of debt," Utah GOP Vice Chairman Aaron Starks said shortly before the first meeting Friday of the leaders elected by delegates as the "Fresh Start" slate at the May 4 state party convention.
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said the phones should be turned back on "hopefully any moment" and fundraising is already underway to pay off a pile of bills that add up to $100,000.
"What's happening here at the party is we are literally turning everything back on and saying, 'We're open for business,'" Brown said as Starks, along with the party's treasurer, Michael Bird, and secretary, Kendra Seeley, laughed.
The debt accumulated as contributions to the state's dominant political party dried up during a yearslong battle with the state over a controversial election law known as SB54 that changed the candidate nomination process.
The legal fight ended earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the party's appeal of losses at federal district court in Salt Lake City and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
But the infighting that had plagued the party since the law was passed in 2014 didn't let up, pitting a faction of the GOP's governing State Central Committee against the former chairman, Rob Anderson. Anderson chose not to seek another two-year term.
Losses in key races in last year's election were blamed in part on a lack of party support for the GOP candidates, including in the 4th Congressional District, where Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, narrowly beat two-term incumbent Mia Love.
Add in a six-figure debt, and delegates were ready for something different.
They decisively rejected candidates for party leadership positions seen as fueling what has been described as a civil war within the GOP in favor of choices with the backing of some of the state's top elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert.
"They made their voices heard last Saturday," Starks said Friday of the more than 2,000 delegates from around the state attending the convention. "I think the evidence was almost shocking to a lot of us, how ready the state is for a fresh start."
Some of the friction between party leadership and the State Central Committee will be eased thanks to a significant turnover in the committee membership that's still underway as county party conventions continue through the summer.
Brown said the law allows Republicans to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot so past attempts to punish them for not sticking to the party's traditional caucus and convention system isn't the answer.
Instead, he said, the party's system needs to be promoted so candidates see it a tool that will help them win election. Brown, a former state lawmaker, cited the "solider" delegates who campaigned for him in his Sandy district.
"The caucus system is what made me a good candidate," Brown said. "So I think that's our message to candidates, is that the caucus system is not a hurdle you try and overcome, it is a tool that strengthens you and helps you win."
Seeley, a former chairwoman of the Carbon County Republican Party, said Republicans in rural areas of Utah are excited to see new state leadership that includes someone from off the Wasatch Front.
"While the party's been in disarray up here, we've been working really hard to flip Carbon County from the Democrat county that it was to a Republican county. We just put our head down and focused on our job," Seeley said.
That's something the state party now needs to do, she said.
"We really had to work hard as a county party to win elections and I think at the state level, we've got to get back to winning elections as well and making sure that's our focus," Seeley said. "Keeping our eye on the ball."
That means getting those bills paid so the attention can shift to the looming 2020 elections that will include a March 3 Super Tuesday presidential primary as well as a possible rematch between McAdams and Love and slew of other races.
Bird, who ran unopposed for party treasurer, expressed confidence that it won't take long.
"I think it's safe to say we have some catching up to do. It's nothing we can't handle shortly," he said. "When Derek and the team in general was elected, people saw the vision that he had and immediately started donating."
Brown said the goal is to settle the debt within a month. He said the day after the state party convention, five former big-money donors to the Utah GOP called to say they were ready to start giving again.
Starks said the renewed interest is about more than money.
"There seems to be, fundraising aside, a new energy about the organization that hasn't existed for a while. So beyond fundraising, I know all of us have received emails and my phone has rung for five days," he said. "People want to get involved."