Tension mounts in Utah Republican Party over county GOP's pre-primary mailer

Tension over a mailer sent out by the Salt Lake County Republican Party is roiling the party and may be indicative of a broader split in the GOP.

Tension over a mailer sent out by the Salt Lake County Republican Party is roiling the party and may be indicative of a broader split in the GOP. (Eliza Anderson, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Tension over a mailer sent out by the Salt Lake County Republican Party is roiling the party and may be indicative of a broader split in the GOP.

A mailer was sent to Republican voters in Salt Lake County with the words "2024 Primary Ballot Candidate Guide" at the top. Then, it lists candidates who received 40% or more at convention. This means other primary candidates like incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox do not appear on the mailer even though Utahns will see him and others on the June 25 ballot.

Chris Null, the chairman of the Salt Lake County GOP, which was responsible for production of the mailer, said to his knowledge the party has never sent out a mailer like this before.

"It was an intentional thing to send this out because my own responsibility as a chair is to amplify the voice of party or the will of the party through the delegates," said Null.

The county party only recognizes the convention process and the not the signature-gathering process, said Null, adding that he tries to carefully follow the bylaws.

Nowhere in the bylaws does the term signature gathering appear. In Article X Section 5, it does state, "If a nominee is selected, the party shall support and endorse the party's nominee elected at convention."

"This is an attempt by the Salt Lake County GOP leadership to put forward its own agenda rather than actually inform voters," said a GOP source speaking anonymously.

"If the candidates that are listed on this flyer don't win, which polling indicates in many races that they're not going to, there's going to be a lack of trust between GOP nominees and the county party because they're not going to feel like they have their best interests at heart," said the source.

The 2024 Primary Ballot Candidate Guide released by the Salt Lake County Republican Party.
The 2024 Primary Ballot Candidate Guide released by the Salt Lake County Republican Party. (Photo: Salt Lake County Republican Part)

Null: County GOP won't 'weigh in' if candidates win primary who didn't win at convention

In response to a request for comment from the Deseret News, Corey Norman, chief of staff for Rep. John Curtis who is running for Senate, said, "From the start, our campaign has been disciplined and focused. Recognizing the variables beyond our control, we've opted for the approach of engaging voters directly and sharing with them John's conservative agenda for Utah."

Null said he sees the flyer as him doing his job, not furthering an agenda.

"I'm not the chair to promote my own ideas because I don't necessarily always agree with the delegates, but I am going to do what the delegates have said," Null said.

As Null explained his thought process behind sending out the mailer, he said there were a couple races in previous years where candidates struggled with name recognition. He wanted the party to be effective in helping candidates receive the Republican nomination.

Null is an outspoken supporter of the caucus-convention system, frequently posting about it on his social media accounts.

When asked why he supports the caucus-convention system, Null said he thinks it allows for average citizens to run for office on a more level playing field.

But the GOP source said he thinks "many of the current class of county leadership is going to be remembered as having wasted precious resources that have been directed toward November elections where Democrats could win."

Utah is starting to turn purple, said the source, and Republicans will look back at this as a time where resources were wasted that could have been spent keeping the state red. In particular, Salt Lake County may be vulnerable to seeing seats flip from red to blue.

Null has a different view — he said SB54, the bill that established the signature gathering path to the primary, is the root of the money issue.

"The signature path is forcing the party and these candidates to have to spend twice as much money to try to win these races when they're the ones chosen by the Republican Party," said Null.

Null said the Salt Lake County GOP won't help county-level Republican candidates who win in the June 25 primary if they didn't win at least 40% of delegates' votes at the convention.

"If you don't get 40%, and then you come back around and somehow manage to win anyway, we're just going to not be weighing in on those races at that point because the delegates, it's kind of like on one hand the delegates are nominating the right candidate for the job," he said.

But Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Axson told the Deseret News that on the state level, it would be different. He said they would "100%, wholeheartedly, unequivocally" support whichever Republican candidate wins the primary.

"According to our party rules, once the convention delegates have spoken, that's where we provide some encouragement and support," said Axson. "But after the primary, that's where Republicans have spoken, and we wholeheartedly, enthusiastically get behind whoever comes out of that."

Axson noted that candidates who won at convention cannot use party resources "in a way that is degrading or attacking or belittling the positions or candidacy of any other Republican, regardless of how that Republican's candidacy becomes valid — whether it's through signatures or convention path."

The bigger picture

The anonymous GOP source said it's possible county and state parties could see funding dissipate if the county parties take the same approach Salt Lake County did with its mailer.

"Much of the party funding comes from the elected officials and from individuals who support those current elected officials," said the source, adding, "No incumbent is going to want to fund that ever again, and the donors friendly to those incumbents are never going to want to support the party if this is how it's going to be used and this is how they're going to be treated."

Null said he knows it will impact fundraising. "But is that the point of the party, to raise money and be flush with money?"

"The whole idea of the party, the nomination process, is that it's the grassroots, and that we provide a level playing field for any citizen who has good ideas and who can lead to run for office," said Null.

Since convention, there's been rumblings that changes will come to the caucus-convention system, and the GOP source said it's possible some conditions could spark those changes.

If candidates who were nominated at convention are defeated in primaries, the source said, "Many Republicans would be willing to consider changes to the current caucus convention system."

Axson said if legislators attempt to change the system, he'll engage in those conversations.

Describing the caucus-convention system as "invaluable for the people of Utah," Axson said he supports it because he believes it provides an opportunity for deep engagement between candidates and voters. He also thinks it can energize young voters.

"No other system exists that allows somebody who has no political connections, no political wherewithal, no large dollars to donate to campaigns, the ability to just jump and enthusiastically through volunteer service and engagement, research, run to be a delegate, to vet candidates and have the ability to be a part of the process," said Axson.

Axson pushed back on the idea raised by some that the majority candidates who win at convention don't end up winning the primary.

"They conveniently leave out the majority of candidates who win because they're not opposed," said Axson. "Those are convention winners. Those are Republican party process winners, so there's far less disconnect than people realize."

When asked if there was a rift between convention-only candidates and signature-gathering candidates, Axson said he doesn't think rift is the right word.

"But there certainly is a painful reality that occurs during election cycles, and it occurs in any state, in any jurisdiction, in any race, whether it's in the convention process or outside of the convention process," he said.

Republicans don't always agree on who to support, said Axson.

"I think that's healthy," he said. "I know it's not comfortable for the candidates themselves, but I think appropriate tension of earning the support of voters is the foundational element of a constitutional republic."

The Deseret News asked Axson how he navigates what some see as a rift or tension between candidates who are on different paths to the primary. He said he thinks it's key for Republican primary voters to do the research to figure which candidates they believe will best represent them and advance the principles of the Republican Party.

"And once we're past the primary, I think you'll see an element of unity occur again."

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