SALT LAKE CITY — A small group of far-right Republicans staged a coup of sorts over the weekend, changing Utah GOP bylaws in a way that could jeopardize the party's ability to place candidates on the election ballot.
The Republican State Central Committee voted to kick out candidates in two congressional districts who choose to collect signatures to get on the 2018 primary election ballot. But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, have not declared their intent to gather signatures — nor has any other Republican in those two districts.
The possibly illegal rule, though, could also have implications for federal, statewide, state legislative or State School Board elections in the future, should it remain in place.
Members of the party’s Central Committee made the changes during a hastily called meeting over the weekend. About 80 of the committee’s 180 members attended, but fewer than that were there to vote on the new bylaw.
"I'm the adult in the room here," said Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson.
Anderson said he can't enforce the rule if it violates state and federal law. Furthermore, he said the policy could affect the party's standing in the state, leading to candidates not qualifying for the ballot.
"They're trying to have a canary candidate out there, and once that canary violates that bylaw, they want go to out there and disqualify him with the state," he said.
It appears to be a move to force the controversial signature-gathering path allowed under the SB54 bill that lawmakers passed several years ago to court again. An appeal of a court ruling upholding the law is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
"This doesn't give that (appeal) any more teeth, and that was discussed in the meeting," Anderson said. "We don't need more litigation. We need an answer and we'll wait for that."
The Utah Republican Party declared itself a qualified political party under the law known as SB54, which allows candidates to get on the primary election ballot by gathering petition signatures, going through the political party’s convention, or both.
"This central committee bylaw is in direct violation of that. For me, it's a matter of integrity and honoring what you say you will do as a party," Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who brokered the SB54 compromise, said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" Monday.
Anderson talked to House Republicans in a closed caucus Monday and also met with the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees state elections.
Some far-right Republicans only want candidates who go through the state's long-standing caucus and convention system to secure the party's nomination for an elected office.
SB54, a compromise that headed off a citizens' initiative to move the state to direct primary elections, allows candidates to use either path or both to get on the primary ballot.
Bramble said he is "surprised" that the GOP would commit to be a qualified party and pass bylaws that violate that commitment.
The new bylaw states, in part, that candidates in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts "who attempt to qualify for the primary ballot through any method not explicitly defined in the Utah Republican Party Constitution and these bylaws will automatically forfeit their party membership in conjunction with the state designated candidate filing-period deadline."
Those who forfeited their memberships could reapply one day following the next general election, according to the rule.
The party must submit the change to the state elections office within 15 days of adoption.
"That will throw a real wrench in the works because if the party violates the qualified political party status, the status of that party's candidates is really in question," Bramble said.
Whether that would disqualify the party's candidates from being on the ballot is a question for the elections office or a court to resolve, he said.
The state elections office wasn't prepared to comment on the issue Monday.
"We’ll see what happens. I don’t know. My crystal ball hasn’t come in the mail," said Fred Cox, a central committee member and former GOP lawmaker.
In the meantime, Anderson said he's advising potential candidates to gather signatures, take the caucus and convention route, or both, to get on primary ballots.
"The state law dictates what you can do. You can choose," he said. "So, we're not going to stop anybody from either method or eliminate your membership in the party."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes most Republicans don't agree with the action taken by the State Central Committee.
"I don't see that our party's torn apart. There's a minority of our party that want this. The majority of the party, I can guarantee, don't want this. They support having primaries and having a say," Niederhauser said.
He also said that any effort to try to keep candidates who have gathered signatures off the ballot will be met with a lawsuit.
"The part that really baffles me is certain people are getting a pass for collecting signatures and others are not," Niederhauser said, noting only two of the state's four congressional districts are affected. "How do you do that? That's inconsistent."41 comments on this story
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he can understand the frustration some Republicans feel about being forced into costly primaries but questioned the route the State Central Committee is taking.
"My own personal opinion is we have a law that's on the books and we should be following it," acting Senate Majority Leader Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said. He said it "will take a vote of the party" at the state convention in April to actually change the rule.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Jed Boal