PROVO A decade ago, a small but noisy conservative group stormed into Utah Republican politics and briefly threatened to divide the party before disappearing like a summer squall.
Now the Utah Republican Assembly has been resurrected, with chapters stretching from Centerville to St. George. A sometimes controversial former legislator leading the Utah County chapter promised the assembly's new incarnation will be less divisive.
"I didn't join it then," said Mike Thompson of the national movement's first appearance in Utah, which made headlines from 1997 to 2002. "We're a conservative organization, but I get concerned that sometimes when conservatives get together, they get too radical, so I didn't join it then."
Thompson has stayed active in politics as a county, state and national Republican Party delegate since he lost his seat in the Legislature in the party primary in 2004. Now a member of the party's state Central Committee, he said the revived Utah Republican Assembly will endorse candidates who espouse the group's conservative views but that he will make sure dialogue among the assembly, legislators and the party will remain respectful, be a little less confrontational and "not get radical."
That might be a tall order, because one of the main purposes of the group is to endorse candidates in convention and primary races, when Republicans are running against Republicans.
The assembly took sides in this summer's Republican primary, endorsing Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz defeated six-term incumbent and fellow Republican Chris Cannon by running to the right of Cannon, a conservative congressman who wasn't conservative enough for some. In fact, some called him a RINO, or Republican-In-Name-Only. The term is used on the Web site of National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA), which represents groups in 40 states.
Chaffetz spoke Wednesday night at a Utah Republican Assembly dinner at the home of Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. The dinner drew 38 people, seven of whom joined the assembly.
Thompson said the group wants to build an organization to help conservative candidates who share moral values extending beyond pro-life and anti-gay marriage issues to those of basic honesty.
To fill that role, Thompson and others revived the URA and launched a new political action committee.
The president of the URA is Larry Meyers, who organized a May meeting that sparked the launch of new chapters in Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. Salt Lake chapter president David Pyne is vice president of the Western Region of the NFRA.
This summer, Herrod, Pyne, Meyers and Thompson formed the new Defend Utah Values political action committee. Another member of the PAC's board is Lowell Nelson, former Utah County Republican Party treasurer and president of the new Utah Republican Liberty Caucus.
The possibility for division might get a test next spring, when the Utah County Republican Party holds elections for its leadership positions.
Thompson said he has declined to run for chairman of the county party but added, "We will be involved in that election."
The 1990s Utah Republican Assembly, led by Tom Draschil and Don Ruzicka, was considered arch-conservative by some GOP officeholders.
Draschil was arrested for trespassing in 1998 while passing out URA literature at the state Republican convention, but a judge dismissed the charges. Draschil said on his radio show that President Bush lied to the American people and should be impeached. He also ran a failed campaign against Cannon in 2002, saying he would yank the Violence Against Women Act, which he called "feminist pork," and stop co-ed basic training in the U.S. Armed Forces and oppose use of women in combat.
Ruzicka, whose wife is president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, called the movement "mainstream conservatism" and a "conservative uprising" and chafed when fellow Republicans described the Republican Assembly as too far to the right.
"They talk about us like we're the plague moving across the state," Ruzicka said in 1998, when it seemed the URA was poised to take over the Utah County Republican Party in 1999.
The national organization calls Republican assemblies "the Republican wing of the Republican Party."
In 1998, Ron Paul spoke at the first Utah Republican Assembly convention.
Ruzicka took credit that year for influencing candidacies at Republican conventions and primaries, but within a few short years, after Draschil moved away, the organization faded into the background.
Then last year, the southern Utah chapter of the Utah Republican Assembly helped organize a sidewalk demonstration in St. George to call for secure borders and the rejection of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The URA's endorsement of Chaffetz created a connection back to the heyday of the group in 1998, when the URA and Eagle Forum backed Jeremy Friedbaum's improbable intraparty run against Cannon.Friedbaum fared shockingly well at the Republican convention that year and forced Cannon to a primary. Cannon clobbered Friedbaum in the primary, but the embarrassment of being forced to a primary two years after winning back the Congressional seat from a Democrat spawned repeated efforts from the right to oust Cannon until Chaffetz succeeded this year.