As Weber Co. GOP convention looms, candidate-selection process draws fire

Friday , April 13, 2018 - 5:00 AM

OGDEN — Stumping for support, some Weber County Republican hopefuls — those who sought a place on the primary ballot via petition — have felt a sting at times from their fellow GOPers.

Mark Miller, vying for seat B on the Weber County Commission, senses that for some GOP delegates — the partisans who pick the official party nominees at the Weber County Republican Party convention on Saturday — a candidate’s qualifications are secondary. More important for some, in his opinion and to his dismay, is if a candidate declined to petition and opted only to seek a spot on the ballot via party convention — an apparent gauge of party loyalty.

“Their vetting isn’t true vetting,” said Miller, an Ogden GOPer who tried to secure a ballot spot via petition but didn’t get enough signatures.

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Now he’ll be seeking the Republican nomination at Saturday’s convention, which is governed by controversial new rules that make it tougher for candidates like him who try the petition route, another hot point.

Weber County Republicans will gather at Weber High School to nominate the formal slate of Republicans to the June 26 primary ballot for a large chunk of the posts up for grabs this cycle, including sheriff, two county commission posts and several Utah House seats.

In a Republican-dominated place like Weber County, it’s a big day, when the list of hopefuls eyeing elective office will be pared back considerably.

But with debate simmering here and across Utah over how GOP candidates should be picked, some Republicans in Weber County are expressing dismay and disappointment as the convention nears, questioning the selection process. At issue here are controversial changes to Weber County Republican Party bylaws, implemented last October, that make nomination easier for party hopefuls who forgo the petition route and seek a place on the ballot solely through the party convention.

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The bylaw changes were an offshoot of the uproar over Senate Bill 54, the controversial 2014 measure that is the focus of a lingering court fight, which gave Republicans the mechanism to get on the ballot via petition, not just party convention.

“The system’s rigged. It’s stacked against us,” said Lori Brinkerhoff, another Republican county commission candidate who unsuccessfully petitioned for a place on the primary ballot.

She’ll be seeking support among delegates for a ballot spot at Saturday’s GOP convention, battling it out with Miller and Scott Jenkins.

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Though state law allows for two routes to the ballot — through the collection of enough signatures on petitions or via nomination by party delegates at the convention — that’s not enough for a core of GOPers, lamented Brinkerhoff. Echoing Miller, she said some zero in on the means Republicans tap to get on the ballot, shunning dual-path hopefuls — those who seek ballot spots via both petition and convention — in favor of those who try only via convention.

“There’s an extremely small group that will not talk to you. You’re blackballed,” Brinkerhoff said.

The delegates who make the picks at the convention are frequently party stalwarts, those most engaged and involved with the Republican Party.

Lorraine Brown, an Ogden Republican who’s running for the District 10 Utah House seat, has seen the division, which underscores a statewide debate among GOPers over how candidates should be picked. The split she’s seen as campaigning “gives candidates a feeling you are not welcome in the party if you gather signatures,” she said.

JUST 30 PERCENT TO WIN

More concretely, Brinkerhoff and others pointed to last year’s Republican Party bylaw changes here that, in some cases, would allow a convention-only candidate to win the nomination with just 30 percent of delegates’ votes, even if a dual-path hopeful got more. Proponents of the change aim to encourage Republicans to seek a place on the ballot via convention, not petition, but it rubs many the wrong way.

“A lot of people are upset about it because it doesn’t represent the will of the delegates in any sense,” said Steve Waldrip, a Republican from Eden who’s vying for the District 8 seat in the Utah House, which covers eastern Ogden and eastern Weber County. 

Waldrip is a dual-path candidate, didn’t get enough signatures to secure a ballot place via petition and will be vying with Kimberly Stevens and Jason Kyle at Saturday’s GOP convention for a ballot spot.

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Miller, too, decried the specter of a convention-only candidate securing the GOP nomination with less support among delegates than a dual-path hopeful. Indeed, the bylaws, vaguely written, would require a dual-path candidate to secure 70 percent of delegates’ votes plus one to prevail at the convention over a convention-only hopeful.

Stevens, a dual-path candidate, called the different thresholds of delegate support needed to secure nomination “a little frustrating.”

Utah Rep. Kelly Miles, an Ogden Republican who’s running unopposed on the GOP side in seeking re-election to the District 11 spot, similarly expressed unease.

“I don’t know that that’s the fairest way to do things,” he said.

Lynda Pipkin, chairwoman of the Weber County Republican Party, didn’t return calls seeking comment. But Kyle, a convention-only candidate for the District 8 Utah House seat, defended the rules here, saying dual-path candidates, with two potential routes to the ballot, would otherwise have an unfair edge.

“I am a believer in the convention system. It’s not the perfect system, but I think it is a good system,” Kyle said.

Jenkins, a convention-only candidate for county commission, also defended the convention system, arguing that a group like the Republican Party ought to be able to set its own guidelines for picking candidates. He fought against SB 54 when a member of the Utah Senate.

‘ENDLESS LOOP’ OF VOTING

Philosophical differences on the candidate-selection process aside, Waldrip said the new Weber County bylaws have flaws that could make voting on Saturday problematic. 

In a race like his, with two dual-path candidates, himself and Stevens, and one convention-only hopeful, Kyle, the rules don’t spell out how a dual-path candidate could win the nomination, Waldrip maintains. The race for seat B on the Weber County Commission similarly features two dual-path candidates, Brinkerhoff and Miller, and one convention-only candidate, Jenkins.

Moreover, if Kyle finished third in the initial voting, with less than 30 percent of the vote, the three candidates would face another round of voting. If Kyle again finished third, with less than 30 percent support, another ballot would be taken. Waldrip called it a potential “endless loop” of voting.

Even if a dual-path candidate garnered 100 percent of the votes, he maintains, “it wouldn’t be over. There’s no end.”

Kyle said if he gets more than 30 percent of the vote, he would win. “That’s what I expect is going to happen. So I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” he said.

Likewise, the circumstances of the District 10 Utah House race, with two GOP candidates — Brown and Terry Schow — weren’t contemplated in the new Republican Party bylaws, Brown maintains. Both filed their intent to petition for a place on the ballot with county election officials but didn’t garner enough signatures to get on the ballot and will be facing each other at Saturday’s convention for the GOP nomination.

Because the rules don’t specifically spell out how races involving just dual-path candidates like Brown and Schow are to be handled, Pipkin and other county party leaders had to scramble for a fix. Old rules will apply, Brown and Schow said, and the candidate that gets 60 percent or more backing at the convention will be the party nominee, per the solution.

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If neither meets the 60 percent threshold, both will go on the June 26 primary ballot, with GOP voters picking a winner.

Brown praised party officials for reaching a fix. But still, the lead-up to Saturday’s convention for Weber County GOPers has at times been fraught with tension.

“It’s a delicate issue within the party,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s been hugely divisive.”

The Utah Republican Party holds its convention on April 21, when party nominees for federal posts and other state seats that cross county borders are to be selected.

Weber County Democrats held their party convention on April 7, though none of the posts up for grabs had multiple Democratic contenders. The general election is Nov. 6.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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