DENVER – Utah Republicans were pressing ahead with a legal battle that has divided the party for three years, arguing before a federal appeals court Monday that a state law changing how political parties nominate their candidates is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit going before the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the Utah GOP’s second attempt to chip away at the 2014 law, which allows candidates to bypass the party’s nominating conventions and instead participate in a primary.
How Republicans pick their candidates plays a huge role in the overwhelmingly conservative state, where contests within the GOP often decide elections.
The fight over the law has left the party saddled with debt and played a role in the June ouster of its chairman, who spearheaded the legal challenge.
Rob Anderson, the new chairman, has said he wants the party to drop the legal battle that’s left it roughly $500,000 debt, but he’s failed to win backing from the GOP’s central governing committee.
The party contends it has the right to determine how it picks its candidates and says the law’s signature-gathering requirements for candidates going through a primary are too high, creating an unconstitutional burden for Republicans.
Under the law, a candidate can choose to participate in a party’s convention, its primary election or both. But the Utah GOP says the choice of systems belongs to the party – not its individual candidates.
Utah’s elections office has disputed the party’s claims and says the state has an interest in creating an election system that enables broad participation.
The party appealed to the 10th Circuit after a federal judge in Utah ruled against it last year. The GOP unsuccessfully made similar arguments in a 2014 lawsuit.
The law was a compromise that the state Legislature struck with a group of mostly wealthy, prominent Republicans, who were pushing a ballot initiative that would move Utah entirely to a primary system.
Backers of Count My Vote, including former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, have been pushing for changes since 2010, when three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted at the GOP convention amid the tea party movement.
Count My Vote argues that it’s difficult for many people to participate in the convention system, with its requirement of attending meetings in person. The group says the small portion of party faithful attending conventions has resulted in more extreme political positions or candidates without broad support.
That argument has been supported by elections held since the law took effect.
In both a special election this year to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz in Congress and a 2016 gubernatorial election, GOP delegates picked far-right candidates who were later trounced in GOP primaries by more moderate candidates.
Defenders of the convention system argue it allows for local scrutiny of candidates and enables those without deep pockets to run for office.