SANDY — Efforts to change the way Utah Republicans select their nominees were soundly defeated Saturday at the party’s annual state convention despite the threat of an initiative petition drive to establish an alternative route to the primary ballot.
Now that GOP delegates rejected both making it easier to participate in caucus night and raising the threshold candidates must reach to win nomination at convention, signatures may soon start being gathered to put that alternative on the 2014 ballot.
A spokesman for the group behind the initiative, Count My Vote, said there’s little alternative after the vote other than to launch the petition drive, but the decision won’t be made until a meeting Monday.
“We just think we can do better,” the spokesman, Rich McKeown, said. “And we think voters in Utah think that as well.”
The group, which includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, had pledged not to go forward with the initiative if the GOP delegates made the changes.
Newly elected Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said he shares Count My Vote’s concerns about the need to increase voter participation and will continue to work with the group.
“At the core, we all have to understand what the underlying concern is,” Evans said. “And that is there aren’t enough Republicans who feel like they’re participating in selecting our nominees.”
A poll commissioned by the state party found that caucus-goers supported raising the threshold for avoiding a primary and disagreed that only the most active party members should pick nominees.
But many delegates seemed to share the concerns raised by Arturo Morales of Utah County, who was cheered after describing Republicans as being pressured to go along with the changes.
“You and I are being blackmailed, and the question is: Are you willing to give into their demands?” Morales told the delegates. “If you give into blackmail today, who will show up to blackmail us tomorrow?”
Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, who had backed the changes and called the initiative a serious threat, agreed that may be the reason behind the decisions made by the delegates.
“I think the pressure of feeling something had to be done for an outside group was hard for some people to accept,” Wright said.
He said he believes if the initiative qualifies for the ballot, it is likely to be approved by voters.
Enid Mickelsen, a former congresswoman from Utah and the party’s national committeewoman, sponsored the threshold increase.
“Rarely have I been so astonished to see so much misinformation,” she told the delegates.
Mickelsen said candidates needed to win a larger percentage of votes at convention to avoid a primary open to all Republican voters and give unknown and underfunded candidates a better chance against incumbents.
But Fred Cox, a former state legislator who opposed the increase, said a higher threshold would have the opposite effect.
“If we raise this threshold, we weaken the process,” he said.
Also during the daylong convention, delegates elected new party leaders and heard from top GOP elected officials, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who slammed the Internal Revenue Service for singling out conservative groups seeking exemptions.
“These people are either incompetent or evil,” Hatch said, calling the IRS the most frightening federal agency. He said that if the nation has a government that can “pull this type of crap on American citizens, we’ve lost our liberty.”
Embattled Attorney General John Swallow, who is under investigation by federal, state and local authorities, circulated among the delegates but was not among the convention speakers.
Delegates dealt with resolutions on controversial issues beyond the caucus and convention system, too.
They backed a call for the state to withdraw from the Common Core State Standards “and any other alliance that promotes and tests for un-American and inferior curricula, standards and assessments” in public schools.
And they supported telling Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers to reject the proposed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
On immigration, the delegates voted against a resolution supporting the Utah Compact, a declaration of principles endorsed by business, community and faith leaders.
But the delegates did back a resolution stating Republicans are inclusive and that “there is a place for Hispanics and all other immigrants within our party.”
Utah Democrats, who have a similar caucus and convention system for selecting nominees, will take up the issue of whether it should be scraped at the state convention in June.
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