OGDEN — No. 2 can apparently be No. 1.
The decision by GOP leaders to throw their weight behind the runners-up has its roots in the simmering debate among Utah Republicans over the ideal means to get on the primary ballot — via convention or collection of signatures on petitions.
It’s got the top finishers in the three races — arguably the most popular hopefuls in their respective contests among the most active Republicans — shaking their heads, suggesting top leaders in the GOP hierarchy are out of touch.
“It undermines the delegate process,” said Gage Froerer, the contender for seat A on the Weber County Commission who finished first among delegates at the April 14 GOP convention but lost out on the party endorsement to runner-up James Couts. “To me, that just shows that the party’s not in touch with normal Weber County voters.”
Ryan Arbon, who finished first among GOP delegates in his bid for Weber County sheriff but lost out on the endorsement to second-place finisher Kevin Burns, is hearing from delegates who are upset over the turn of events. Arbon beat Burns among delegates in the final round of voting at the convention by a 62-38 percent margin.
“Even the delegates seem to be upset this was done,” Arbon said. “I’m getting messages from delegates that are frustrated.”
Beyond that, Arbon feels miffed by GOP leadership and thinks that by endorsing Burns they’re calling his Republican credentials into question.
“It’s frustrating,” Arbon said. “You follow the law and you get penalized by your own party. I’ve been a Republican since I’ve been 18 when I registered to vote.”
Of course, GOP voters in the June 26 primary have final say. The voting at party conventions by GOP delegates — active party members chosen to the positions by fellow Republicans — serves to winnow the list of candidates who get their names on the official primary ballot. Endorsements by party leadership, moreover, are hardly binding.
But the endorsements of Couts, Burns and District 8 Utah House hopeful Jason Kyle — all runners-up at the GOP convention — underscore ongoing division within the Republican Party here and across the state.
Couts, Burns and Kyle tapped the traditional means — support of delegates at the convention — to get on the ballot. That is the mechanism favored by Weber County Republican Party leadership. Their opponents — Froerer, Arbon and Steve Waldrip, who beat Kyle by a 71-29 percent margin in delegate balloting for the District 8 Utah House seat — tried via convention and the alternative means, the collection of signatures on petitions.
In a letter to members explaining the endorsements, Lynda Pipkin, chairwoman of the county party, singled out the provisions of party bylaws governing the process used by candidates to secure a place on the Republican primary ballot. Pipkin and other party leaders didn’t respond to queries seeking additional comment on the endorsements.
“Articles IX and X of our bylaws give deference to the candidates who have shown respect to the party by choosing to use our caucus/convention system exclusively,” Pipkin explained in her letter, emailed Tuesday. The provisions, as outlined in the bylaws, stem from concerns that the petition process — permitted per controversial 2014 legislation, Senate Bill 54 — could result in non-Republican candidates getting on the GOP primary ballot.
Per the bylaws, Pipkin continued, party endorsements went to Burns, Kyle, Couts and eight others, who all sought primary slots solely through the convention. The letter didn’t mention other specific attributes of the endorsed candidates or policy positions.
The issue of how Republican hopefuls in Weber County seek formal party support emerged ahead of the April 14 convention as well as due to controversial rules governing the convention process that some saw as unfairly punitive toward those who petition for a place on the ballot.
Froerer, Couts and James Ebert, the incumbent, are the three Republicans vying for seat A on the county commission while Arbon, Burns and David MacInnes face off in the GOP primary for sheriff. Sheriff Terry Thompson isn’t seeking re-election and no Democrats are running in either contest, so barring the unexpected, primary balloting will settle the two races.
Waldrip and Kyle are the only Republicans in the District 8 Utah House race. The primary winner will face Democrat Deana Froerer in the Nov. 6 general election.
‘TEARING IT APART’
Arbon wonders if changes like the endorsement policy hurt the party.
“Is the Republican Party exclusive or is it inclusive? They’re not bringing in people this way. They’re tearing it apart,” he said. Though party leaders may frown on petitioning for a place on the GOP ballot, he noted that in the course of his efforts to gather signatures he and those helping him registered 120 voters as Republicans.
Waldrip, meanwhile, expressed faith in the judgment of the delegates who overwhelmingly favored him. “I trust the delegates and the delegates made a great choice in our case,” he said.
Couts, the runner-up among convention goers to Froerer in the county commission contest, said candidates knew of the county party’s rules governing endorsements or should have known of them.
“I don’t think it should be controversial at all,” he said. Along with the endorsement, he received $500 from the party, Couts said, and he thinks all endorsed candidates received a similar contribution.
Sheriff’s hopeful Burns, the runner-up to Arbon, said he had no reaction to the head-shaking among some Republicans over the endorsements. He doesn’t know how the endorsement will impact his bid for sheriff and he said he vied for a primary slot solely via the convention route “because that’s the wishes of the party.”
Kyle isn’t sure formal party backing will make a big difference in his primary battle with Waldrip in the District 8 Utah House race.
“I’m not really big on endorsements,” he said. “I think people make up their minds for themselves.”
The Republican Party also endorsed District 7 Utah House hopeful Kyle Andersen and Scott Jenkins, running for seat B on the Weber County Commission. Both faced other GOP challengers, sought primary slots solely via convention and were the top vote-getters among delegates in their respective contests.
Andersen faces Lisa Roskelley, who successfully petitioned for a ballot spot, in the GOP primary. Jenkins remains the sole GOP candidate in his race and moves on to the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
The others getting GOP endorsements, all incumbents seeking re-election, face no GOP challengers. They are Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch, Weber County Attorney Chris Allred, District 11 Utah Rep. Kelly Miles, District 12 Rep. Mike Schultz, District 29 Rep. Lee Perry and District 18 Sen. Ann Millner.
No Democrats vying for state or county office in Weber County face primary challenges.