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Challenge to caucus system to dominate state GOP convention

Published: Saturday, May 11 2013 11:48 p.m. MDT

On the agenda for the state Republican Party Organizing Convention are changes to how delegates gather and select candidates through what's known as the caucus and convention system for choosing nominees.

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SALT LAKE CITY — It's not an election year, but GOP state delegates still have some big political decisions to make when they gather for their annual convention Saturday.

On the agenda for the state Republican Party Organizing Convention are changes to how delegates gather and select candidates through what's known as the caucus and convention system for choosing nominees.

If the changes are adopted by delegates, a group of prominent Republicans behind a proposed initiative petition drive to enact more dramatic reforms to the caucus and convention system has agreed to drop the effort.

The deal offered by the Count My Vote initiative backers has sparked friction over the changes, which would make it easier to participate in party caucuses and raise the vote threshold for candidates to avoid a primary in statewide and federal races.

"I thought, as the leader of the party, I should reach out," outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said of his discussions with the initiative backers, a group that includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Wright brought the group's concerns about the impact of the current caucus and convention system on voter turnout to party officials, who agreed in February to start talking about making changes.

Just before those changes went before the party's central committee last month, the group sent a letter detailing what changes needed to be made to avoid an initiative petition drive to put the issue before voters in 2014.

"Some people felt like the tone was a little demanding," Wright said of the Count My Vote letter, which he described as positive. "One of the members referred to it as blackmail."

The central committee approved a resolution supporting improvements that included proxy voting for Republicans unable to attend the designated caucus night and increasing the number of state delegates.

But efforts to raise the 60 percent threshold to become the party's nominee at convention to the 70 percent sought by the Count My Vote group failed to win the approval of the central committee.

Now state delegates will be asked to endorse the resolution and consider raising the threshold to either two-thirds of the vote, which had more support among the central committee members, or 70 percent.

Wright said the party needs to take the initiative seriously.

A poll taken in January for the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found 66.6 percent support for the initiative's goal of allowing candidates access to a primary ballot through collecting voter signatures.

"It's a legitimate threat," Wright said of the possibility future candidates could choose to bypass the caucus and convention altogether and still compete to be the GOP nominee.

The party leader, whose replacement will be selected at the convention, said the changes up for a vote Saturday "may save the caucus-convention system in the end."

Party officials point out that only four the 44 races since 2000 for the U.S. House and Senate, governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer would have gone to a primary had the threshold been at two-thirds.

Just a single race, the 2008 bid for the 2nd District nomination, would have been affected had the threshold been at 70 percent. In the final round of balloting, Bill Dew won the nomination over former congressman Merrill Cook with 69.3 percent of the vote.

State delegate Morgan Philpot, who would have forced Gov. Gary Herbert into a primary at last year's GOP convention and faced a primary in his 2010 bid for Congress had the threshold been at two-thirds, said he won't support raising it.

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