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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, is interviewed at the GOP office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Just a few days after his surprise win in the race for Utah Republican Party chairman, Rob Anderson was already devising a strategy for ending the legal fight over a controversial state law that's driven the party into debt.

Anderson, an airline pilot, told the Deseret News he'd been advised he legally has the power to halt the GOP's lawsuit against the state over the law known as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the party's caucus and convention system.

"Unilaterally, I could end the lawsuit in my position, by myself," Anderson said, but would risk being removed by the GOP's governing State Central Committee. "There's a lot of political capital to think about that. But no, I'm not inclined to do that."

Seated in the state Republican Party headquarters' small conference room during a recent two-day break in his flight schedule, the former Davis County GOP chairman said he's looking for a solution that's "not me, but we."

Anderson said he wants to bring together a small group of party leaders to meet with Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, as well as lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature, to see if there's a deal to be made.

While those negotiations are underway, Anderson said the party will "stay the course" with the 2014 lawsuit, now pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal judge in Utah upheld much of SB54.

By the next time the central committee holds its first meeting with him as chairman in September, Anderson said he'll be ready "to paint a picture of exactly where we stand and what our options are for the future, and then the vote is up to them."

Whether he can be successful in stopping the lawsuit remains to be seen. Anderson signed the Count My Vote initiative seeking more of a voice for himself and other voters, something he said he wouldn't do now.

"You can be Republican and not support the caucus-convention system," Anderson said. "But do I think it works? Yes, I do. And that system is diluted by SB54 because people can bypass the caucus-convention system."

Anderson said it's his "fiduciary duty in this position to encourage people to go the caucus-convention route," and he would caution GOP candidates against taking the alternate path to the primary ballot, gathering voter signatures, as allowed under SB54.

One of the most vocal opponents of SB54 on the State Central Committee, Chris Herrod, a candidate for Rep. Jason Chaffetz's soon-to-be-vacant seat in Congress, said "important constitutional principles are at stake."

"The decision will eventually be made by the State Central Committee. I'm still a member of that," Herrod said. "Rob says he wants to protect the caucus (system). You can only hope he does what he says."

Utahns, however, overwhelmingly support keeping SB54, according to a new poll for UtahPolicy.com that found 70 percent in favor of the law that created a dual candidate nominating process.

Rich McKeown, a leader of the Count My Vote initiative to create a direct primary that prompted the original SB54 compromise, has warned the petition drive could be relaunched if there's a threat to the alternative ballot route.

Still, McKeown, a Republican who has worked closely for years with another Count My Vote leader, former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, said he was encouraged by Anderson's election by delegates to the state GOP's annual convention on May 20.

"There are lots of people who have felt disenfranchised by the Republican Party, so I think there is a real opportunity for improvement here," McKeown said. "A lot of what is being said sounds hopeful."

Anderson defeated both James Evans, who was seeking a third term as GOP chairman, and Phill Wright, the party's vice chairman, at the convention after telling delegates the Republican Party had lost its way.

The fight over SB54 has resulted in "a shrinking membership, escalating debt and a tainted Republican reputation. We are a house divided," Anderson said in his speech, calling for an audit of party finances.

A closer look at the books, Anderson said, has shown the Utah GOP is in even more debt than he feared and finances are in a "shambles." He said the party owes more than $450,000, including $300,000 in legal bills.

"It doesn't surprise me, but it's disheartening that it got this far," Anderson said, noting that the $4,000 rent on the Eagle Gate offices hadn't been paid yet for the month and that it's going to be difficult to make payroll.

Anderson said he's seen the worry on the face of the party's treasurer, Abram Young, who told him, "You don't understand how many sleepless nights I've had over finances." Anderson said he assured Young he'll have the resources he needs to do his job.

B.J. Griffin, a curriculum and multimedia designer who produced campaign materials for Anderson's race for chairman, including a series of videos, is now the party's part-time executive director — for now a volunteer position.

Griffin said Anderson marks "a dramatic change" for the GOP. He said he sees his job as "making sure the normal, average member of the Republican Party can be happy and excited about the messages and stand proudly as a Republican."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said he's not so sure Anderson represents that much of a shift for the GOP.

"I did see one of his videos online about how socialists are taking over the state of Utah and the minds of our young children," Corroon said. "I hear from the press that he's more moderate, but my first experience … didn't lead me to believe so."

The video is aimed at getting Republicans to recognize that the popularity in Utah of self-described Democratic socialist 2016 presidential candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is causing the state to lose "our next generation of conservatives."

Anderson describes himself as a moderate politically, at least by Utah standards.

Although his first run for office was his successful bid for Davis County GOP chairman two years ago, Anderson said he learned plenty about politics during his years of service as an F-15 fighter jet pilot in the Air Force and Air National Guard.

It wasn't until he divorced soon after moving to Utah in 2006 and began dating the woman he married just over five years ago, Utah Federation of Republican Women President Kathleen Anderson, that he got his first exposure to party politics.

Back in 2011, Rob Anderson said the couple went on a date to a Salt Lake County GOP dinner, and he suddenly realized they weren't there to enjoy a meal with friends as candidates pulled him aside to talk about their races.

"I didn't have any interest in getting involved," Anderson said.

That changed when his wife, who had resigned as secretary of the Davis County GOP over friction with then-Chairman Wright, talked him into challenging Wright's bid for a second term.

Despite limited campaigning and zero political experience, he won that race by three votes and said the job turned out to be pretty straightforward once he got the finances in order.

"As far as leadership goes, I've led men into the combat theater," said Anderson, who noted on his campaign website that he is a veteran of four tours of duty in the Middle East. "I know how to run an organization."

Kathleen Anderson said there were political skills her husband has had to learn.

She said he "stammered through" his speech to Davis County delegates when he was running for chairman.

"None of that came naturally to him," she said. "He's not a politician. It's not his background. But he's very smart."

Rob Anderson got behind Donald Trump in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, even though many Utah Republicans backed other candidates, because he believed "Trump had the most realistic chance" of winning.

Anderson said he and Kathleen, who served as Trump's Utah communications director, stuck with him even after a 2005 recording of Trump talking about making sexual advances on women surfaced late in the campaign.

During his own race for chairman, Anderson said he downplayed his support for Trump.

"It wasn't going to help me. I didn't hurt me. I just didn't discuss it," he said. "I love the guy. … He's doing the right things."

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said concern over the Utah GOP's growing debt probably played the biggest role in Anderson's election.

"Republicans in Utah are still trying to figure out what it means to be a Republican in the Trump era," Karpowitz said, but "financial issues are key as well, especially for a party that prides itself on its fiscal conservatism."

Contributing: Ladd Egan