Ravell Call, Deseret News
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt delivered a clear message Wednesday to Utah House Republicans about the state's controversial process for nominating candidates for elected office.

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt delivered a clear message Wednesday to Utah House Republicans about the state's controversial process for nominating candidates for elected office — stop fighting about it.

"I told them SB54 has been a divisive issue. That it’s time to unite, it’s time to let the people speak. It’s the only way we’ll have a chance to, in fact, unite and move forward," he told reporters after speaking to the GOP caucus behind closed doors.

The thrice-elected Republican governor is a leader in the Count My Vote initiative to provide an alternate path to the primary election ballot, an issue that has splintered the Utah GOP for several years.

Leavitt did not seek a House caucus position nor did lawmakers take one. He said some legislators agreed with him and some disagreed.

"They all have reasons they believe we’re doing it, none of which are true. I just wanted to hear them and tell them they weren’t true," he said.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, didn't want to get into specifics but said there was "robust conversation and debate" about Leavitt's position.

"There was a lot of discussion about what are we trying to fix and what is the problem. I don't know that there is unanimity in what that problem is necessarily," he said.

But, he added, "I think we understand each other better."

The 2014 law known as SB54 maintains Utah's traditional caucus and convention system but allows candidates to bypass it by gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot. It came about as a compromise after Count My Vote launched a ballot initiative to go to direct primaries.

The Utah Republican Party sued in federal court to overturn the law but lost, racking up more than $300,000 in legal fees that have yet to be paid. Party leaders recently voted to pursue an appeal relying on an outside donor rather than GOP funds.

Count My Vote relaunched its effort to put the issue before voters in 2018, though it dropped the move to direct primaries. It's now proposing the current dual-track system.

Leavitt said it's "unwise" for the party to continue spending money on the appeal, which he doesn't believe will be successful.

"The reason they’re insolvent is because they're focusing on the interests of the party rather than the interests of the people," he said.

Leavitt said the role of the Utah GOP is to recruit good candidates, help them get elected and promote their shared ideology.

"The party has focused its efforts in other ways, and I think the result is the party isn't healthy right now," he said.

Hughes said some of his colleagues believe a dual path is worth considering if it could bring people together.

"I think one of the big takeaways, and I think I'm safe to say this, is the Legislature doesn't want to be put in the position to save political parties from themselves," he said.

Leavitt said he suspects some lawmakers might attempt to undo SB54 when the Legislature meets in general session in January. He said it wouldn't pass.

As part of the legislative leadership that made the compromise, Hughes said he's keeping that commitment.

Some staunch Republican defenders of the caucus and convention system have shamed candidates who gathered signatures to get on the ballot.

"The reality is if the party continues to do that, they will discredit themselves as being more about the interests of the party than the will of the people," Leavitt said. "In time that will hurt the party."

Leavitt said he recited in the caucus meeting his long history of service in the GOP, including two Cabinet positions in the George W. Bush administration, for those who questioned his party loyalty.

"I think anyone who would question my Republican credentials should re-examine their own, he said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes the Senate is "generally pleased" with Count My Vote's revised initiative language. He said Leavitt did not address the Senate GOP caucus Wednesday.

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"I think in a future date we’ll have them come in and at least talk to us," he said.

The Senate president said when Count My Vote first resurfaced with language that would replace the caucus and convention nominating system with a direct primary, it "felt like a violation."

“We’re committed to the dual path,” Niederhauser said. “We’re glad that the convention and caucus system will be preserved. That was important to us. We felt like that was part of the agreement that we upheld.”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche