SALT LAKE CITY — New Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said Wednesday he's told attorneys to "stay the course" on the party's appeal of a loss to the state over a controversial change to the candidate nomination process.
But Anderson said he's hoping he and a small group of party officials will be able to work out a new compromise with Gov. Gary Herbert and the Republican-controlled Legislature before the case is heard by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
That deal, he said, could erase the alternative signature-gathering path to the primary election ballot created by lawmakers in 2014, known as SB54, as part of a compromise with backers of the Count My Vote initiative.
"I think there's a very high degree of potential of returning to the caucus-convention only," Anderson said, referring to the process used by political parties in Utah that until SB54 gave delegates the power to choose candidates for the general election.
However, the former Davis County GOP chairman said that would require the party to raise the 60 percent vote threshold for candidates to win a nomination outright at convention to help ensure there's a primary election open to all GOP voters.
"If we have a higher threshold, we're always going to send more candidates to the primary, right? I think that would suffice a lot of the concerns of the Count My Vote group," Anderson said.
But Count My Vote leader Rich McKeown said neither the group nor voters will accept delegates controlling which candidates get on the primary ballot through what he called an "antiquated way of conducting elections."
McKeown, who said he has yet to talk to Anderson about SB54, warned that Count My Vote supporters would be ready to relaunch the original initiative if the proposed deal goes forward.
"I don’t think we’d be left with any alternative but to do that. I think we feel strongly enough about the fact progress has been made," he said. "The bottom line is people now see an alterative, and I think we need to do what we can to preserve it."
The legislative sponsor of SB54, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, confirmed there are talks underway about making changes to the compromise he helped broker but declined to discuss details.
"An idea has been brought forward there has been some discussions about, but there have been no decisions made," Bramble said.
Before Count My Vote began circulating the initiative petition to shift the state to a direct primary, Republican leaders backing the change — including former Gov. Mike Leavitt — tried unsuccessfully to talk political parties into adopting higher thresholds.
Candidates who win at least 60 percent of the delegate vote at a party convention advance to the general election without a primary. If not, the top two candidates in delegate voting face a primary runoff.
The Count My Vote initiative, billed as an effort to increase voter participation, would have taken away the power of delegates to send candidates to the primary ballot by establishing a direct primary.
The compromise agreed to by the Legislature's GOP supermajority and signed into law by Herbert, also a Republican, allows candidates to secure a spot on the primary ballot by gathering voter signatures and skip the caucus and convention system.
Anderson, an airline pilot, was elected as party chairman Saturday by delegates to the Utah Republican Party's annual convention after calling the GOP "a house divided" — and in signficant debt — over the SB54 issue.
Anderson said Wednesday he has discovered the party's debt is even higher than he thought — an additional $50,000 or so in bills on top of the $300,000 in legal costs and $100,000 in operation expenses that haven't been paid.
Party finances, Anderson said, are in a "shambles."
A June meeting of the party's governing State Central Committee has been moved until September, Anderson said, where he will present options for dealing with SB54 — likely including halting the legal action against the state in favor of a new deal.
"The vote is up to them," Anderson said of the committee, pledging to stand by its decision.
He has already made staffing changes at the party, letting communications director Cindie Quintana go, and bringing in an executive director, B.J. Griffin, who will initially work without pay.