The Utah Republican Party should end its opposition to SB54, the legislation that permits primary ballot access through both signature gathering and the party's caucus and convention system for nominating candidates.
If members of the GOP State Central Committee want to keep the caucus system alive, they should work to fix SB54. But, by seeking to overturn SB54, they are almost certainly provoking yet another Count My Vote ballot challenge that, if passed, would altogether end the party's current state caucus and convention system.
Importantly, SB54 has helped provide more diversity at the ballot box for Utah Republican voters.
Recently, in the GOP primary race for the 3rd District special election to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the party caucus system put forward former state Rep. Chris Herrod. He faced Tanner Ainge and Provo Mayor John Curtis, who both gathered signatures in order to appear on the primary ballot. Despite a deluge of negative advertisements, Curtis won the primary. He will appear on the general election ballot in November.
During the 2016 party caucus, GOP gubernatorial challenger Jonathan Johnson came out ahead of incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert, who had also gathered signatures to appear on the ballot. During the actual primary run-off, Herbert defeated Johnson by an overwhelming 44 percent margin.
Since SB54, there has been a marked difference between convention results and who wins in the primaries. By allowing both a caucus system and a signature gathering process, registered Republican voters have the opportunity to choose from a diversified pool of candidates.
Many readers will recall that SB54 materialized as a strategy to stave off the Count My Vote referendum’s threat to the caucus system in 2014. With the state Republican Party still opposing SB54, Count My Vote may now re-emerge.
“If the caucus system is going to survive — and I'm telling you, survive, because we're facing pretty stiff odds here — we're going to have to do this together and row the boat in the same direction," state GOP chairman Rob Anderson said on Saturday. "We need to work together."
Anderson is right.
Despite such pleas, the party’s State Central Committee adjourned Saturday without addressing the, ahem, elephant in the room. With no vote on the matter, the Utah GOP will continue its increasingly quixotic battle against SB54 that has already buried the party in more than $300,000 of debt from legal fees.
There’s certainly little appetite in Utah to go back to the days of party bosses and whatever passes for a smoke-filled room in Utah, but the caucus system isn’t altogether without merit. Parties, conventions and caucuses have a way of bringing various electoral interest groups into greater unity. The caucus convention system also provides an avenue for candidates without financial war chests to make it on the ballot.
The Utah Republican Party should seek to preserve, rather than oppose, SB54. Not only would such a move diminish the growing tension between the state’s GOP central committee and registered party members, but it would also help the red party move back into the black.