PARK CITY — The Utah Republican Party will continue its legal fight against state election law for picking candidates, as long as no more party money is used to fund it.
The vote came after hours of bantering between divided members of the State Central Committee, which spent most of Saturday's meeting adopting the day's agenda.
"I think we all want the same thing," said former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, now chairman of the National Republican Committee. "I think we all want to elect Republicans. I think we all want to organize the grass-roots. I think we all want to beat the Democrats … and I think we all want to work together.
"I think we can have it all," he added.
Wright said he supports new Chairman Rob Anderson and county Republicans across the state, but he believes the party should focus on its mission, specifically "winning elections in 2018."
Anderson, who announced a decision Wednesday to drop the lawsuit over SB54, told the committee that he's all for transparency, and with the help of the party's accountant, he explained its "dire" financial state.
"We are still getting our arms around the debt," he said Saturday, adding that unpaid bills continue to come in.
The party owes appeals attorneys about $360,000 and another $88,000 in operational costs and previous expenditures. They are spending the lowest-ever amount on overhead costs at the moment, including about $23,000 on payroll.
"It should be noted that we do an awful lot for very little," said Mike McCauley, the party accountant. "That seems to be the Utah Republican way."
McCauley said the state party owes about $26,000 to the Washington County Republican Party that can't be paid back in the current financial situation.
"That is really disappointing," Anderson said, adding that his responsibility as an officer is to balance the budget and reel in the finances he adopted when he was put in as chairman five months ago.
The biggest debts, Anderson said, can be traced to the lawsuit.
The nonpartisan Count My Vote organization, proponents of the law that allows candidates to bypass the party's caucus and convention nominating system to get on the primary ballot, are poised to win, he said.
"Their Achilles' heel is our lawsuit," he said. "When we ended it, we pulled the carpet out from under them."
Under SB54, candidates can skip party nominating caucuses and conventions by choosing to gather voter signatures as an alternate path to the primary ballot.
Anderson said he's worried the party will be unable to afford to host caucuses next year, a situation he says is also due to a continuing decline in the number of donors.
Anderson gave his word that he'd fight the Legislature to change the law, saying he believes that route has a better potential outcome.
"I know I can beat that petition," he said, maintaining confidence despite the jeering crowd.
But just like the committee didn't get a chance Saturday to condemn Anderson and the other party officers who participated in the decision to drop the lawsuit earlier in the week, Anderson won't get the opportunity to take on the Legislature.
The committee voted, perceivably unanimously, to continue with the lawsuit.
Committee members had painstakingly reworked the agenda — postponing much of their regular business — to allow time to discuss the matter, but with only 117 credentialed members in attendance, there weren't enough votes to even try to oust the embattled chairman.
"(Anderson) has called the State Central Committee 'rogue' and 'disorderly,' but we are simply responding to his disorder and his overhandedness, his desire to go on with his own intentions regardless of what the rules are," said Teena Horlacher, chairwoman of the Davis County Republican Party, who has alleged an untimely but "substantiated" ethics claim against Anderson stemming from 2015 when he ran the Davis County GOP.
Anderson has claimed no wrongdoing, though Horlacher claims the party chairman used an attorney to threaten members of the ethics committee so they wouldn't continue that investigation.
"You can see how he is," she said. "The whole day, he interrupted proceedings so we couldn't get to the censuring."
The meeting was adjourned before any censure could be discussed.
A subcommittee was formed to see the lawsuit through, including State Central Committee members Don Guymon, Layne Beck, Helen Redd, Chris Herrod and Linda Pipkin. The movement has support from Dave Bateman, the CEO of Lehi-based high-tech company Entrata, who said he will pay the legal bills going forward.
Anderson questioned how it could be done without fines being levied by the Federal Election Commission, but the committee refused to listen to his explanation of why that was important.
"We did this with the best intentions," said Joni Crane, state party vice chairwoman, who participated in the earlier decision to drop the lawsuit.
Crane said the intention was to "save the party from its fiscal nightmare."
"It was not because we hate the party," she said.
After the meeting, Count My Vote issued a statement saying its leaders plan to begin collecting signatures for a ballot initiative next week.16 comments on this story
“As a non-partisan community organization, Count My Vote is committed to increasing participation in Utah’s elections. It’s time to move beyond divisiveness and become unified on Utah’s election process. It is clear that the people of Utah should decide how they choose candidates for elected office, and that their unified voice must be heard," the statement said.
"Count My Vote is moving forward with our initiative. We are refining the initiative's final legal language based on public feedback, which we will file in the coming days. We will begin collecting signatures next week.”
The next meeting of the State Central Committee is scheduled for Jan. 27.