SALT LAKE CITY — There's a battle underway over who should lead the Utah Republican Party, with current Chairman James Evans facing two opponents, Phill Wright and Rob Anderson, in his bid for a third term.
It will be up to nearly 3,800 GOP delegates to make a choice that will likely determine the direction of the party on a key issue during their annual state convention, set to be held Saturday at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.
Wright, the state GOP's vice chairman, and Anderson, the outgoing Davis County Republican Party chairman, both say it's time for a change at the top because of how Evans has handled a controversial 2014 law altering the candidate nomination process.
But they also have very different views on what the party should do about the law known as SB54, a compromise with backers of the Count My Vote initiative that sought to replace the caucus and convention system for choosing candidates.
Passed by a majority GOP Legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, SB54 allows candidates to skip the party's delegate-controlled system and instead gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot.
Under Evans, the party eventually took the state to court over the law and is now appealing a federal judge's decision to uphold the signature-gathering path to the ballot to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Wright, who was elected vice chairman two years ago, said the party should have sued the state "immediately" over the law and must continue to fight what he called an attack by "the left fringe of the party" to force unwanted changes.
"It's offensive," Wright said. "People would be up in arms if that happened in their churches. Republicans feel the same way about a law dictating how a private organization runs."
Anderson, however, said it's time for the GOP to "make the fiscally responsible decision — drop the lawsuit, and move on." He said if he is elected chairman, that's the advice he will give the party's governing State Central Committee.
Anderson said the GOP should have taken into consideration the "risk of donors walking away from the party" before filing the lawsuit in the first place to avoid what he believes is a signficant debt.
Donations to the party have dried up during the legal fight over expanding access to the primary ballot, supported by a number of prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt.
But Evans said he's reached an agreement with the party's lawyers to accept what can be raised toward some $300,000 in legal bills. So far, he said, about $85,000 has been contributed to cover those expenses.
A letter from one of the attorneys hired by the party, Marcus Mumford, said "it was understood from the beginning of this engagement that (Count My Vote) and others might actively try to block the party's efforts to raise money" for legal costs.
Mumford also said in the letter to Evans dated April 19 that his understanding was the Utah GOP "would show a reciprocal commitment to satisfy outstanding invoices for my work from funds as they are raised and received by the party."
The attorney told the Deseret News said he still has "a lot of faith in party leadership and their ability to raise money and get me paid." Mumford declined to discuss the time frame in which he expects to receive what he's owed.
Evans, who said he is also raising money by selling advertisements in convention programs and other party publications to local businesses, said the party's debt has to be looked at "based on what was negotiated."
He said that while party leaders typically step down after serving two terms for a total of four years at the helm, "these are not typical times" because the issue of who controls the party nomination process has not yet been resolved.
"There's still work to be done," Evans said, both in court and in the Legislature. "I'm the only one with the relationships with our elected officials to help steer to a successful conclusion on this."
He noted changes made in a Senate bill by the House in the final hours of the 2017 Legislature would have all but ended the SB54 compromise.
"That's substantial," Evans said. "Something like that would never have happened if I were not chair."
Among his supporters is Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
Hughes' chief of staff, Greg Hartley, said the speaker "feels (Evans) has done as good a job as anyone could do given the circumstances during his tenure," navigating not just the SB54 issue but also the GOP split over now-President Donald Trump.
Wright, who headed GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign effort in Utah, said he sees the mission of the state party as promoting its platform, which he described as one of the most conservative in the nation.
"We can't take things for granted. We can't assume because we are the majority party everyone is marching to the same drum," Wright said.
He has proposed creating a committee to let voters know if a Republican strays from the platform.
"We're not looking for candidates who want to run as Republicans. We're looking for Republicans who want to be one of our candidates," he said, calling for candidates and elected officials to be loyal to the platform.
Anderson, who beat Wright two years ago in the race for Davis County GOP chairman and recently won a spot on the party's State Central Committee, said he sees himself as a political moderate.
"I have the ability to be impartial," Anderson said.
He said the party's role is to help get Republicans elected through providing them with voter databases and other assistance, not ensuring they adhere to certain policies.
"Let's be honest, who has time for that?" Anderson said. "Let the constituents decide if they should be re-elected or not. That's the difference with me. I don't think there ought to be any purity tests."
The race for the Utah Republican Party chairmanship comes as the state Democratic Party is looking for a new leader among a number of progressive contenders to replace former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who is stepping down.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said most voters don't like political extremes. He warned that the GOP, which has a stronghold on elected offices throughout the state, could lose touch with some Republican voters.
GOP delegates already tend to be more conservative than most Republicans, Burbank said, and if they're seen as pushing too hard to control candidates, they may "appear to be more concerned about their power" than winning elections.
Burbank said it's "a risk for a political party if what you appear to be doing is saying only elected officials that we approve, that have the views we support and are conservative enough for us, are the only ones who can run as Republicans."