New Utah GOP head ready to take step to end lawsuit

Utah GOP chairman Rob Anderson, center, speaks during the Utah GOP Convention Saturday, May 20, 2017, in Sandy, Utah. Anderson was elected as the new chairman of the Utah Republican Party, defeating both incumbent chairman James Evans and current Vice Chairman Phill Wright. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The newly elected chair of the Utah GOP has vowed to move past a contentious lawsuit that’s left the party deep in debt — a step in a moderate direction that he said Tuesday could heal divisions in the party.

Rob Anderson said he’s been contacted by people interested in donating to the party again, three days after party delegates ousted the chair who oversaw the dogged pursuit of the case that helped put the state GOP some $400,000 in debt.

“I saw the party was going down a path of reduced significance or influence, and a lot of that was based on some financial worries,” Anderson said.

Ending the lawsuit that challenged a law changing how candidates are nominated could open the way for more moderate candidates to get onto the ballot, said Jeremy Pope, co-director of the Center for the of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University

“The ability to go to primaries is going to change politics in Utah to some degree,” Pope said.

Still, if Anderson’s election is a step toward the political middle, it’s a small one, said Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann.

Saturday’s vote likely signals a pragmatic willingness to cut legal losses and stop the financial hemorrhaging, Cann said.

The lawsuit marked a challenge to a 2014 law that allowed political hopefuls to bypass the party’s caucus and convention system and get on the ballot by gathering signatures instead.

Critics say the caucus and convention system favors more conservative, extreme candidates who cater to the small subset of voters who attend conventions.

But party leaders countered that the more intimate caucus setting allows candidates to be more closely vetted and gives those without deep pockets a fairer shot at competing with well-funded or wealthy candidates.

In the lawsuit, the party argued that the law unconstitutionally dictated to the GOP how they should pick their candidates. A federal judge ruled against the party, but it took the case to a federal appeals court in Denver.

Republican delegates now appear to be weary of the ongoing legal battle that’s pitted the party against itself in addition to racking up legal bills.

“Two years ago, I think, had I given that message I might have been booed offstage,” Anderson said. “There’s been a change of heart.”

While Anderson said he’s not necessarily a fan of the law, he said it’s time to change tactics. The party could push the Legislature to change it or simply focus on keeping the caucus system strong by bringing in new voters.

He’s also ready to focus on other things, like ensuring the party isn’t losing ground.

Utah has long been overwhelmingly Republican, but Anderson pointed to the surge of interest in last year’s presidential bid of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as an example of Democrats making inroads.

“I think we could be so much stronger,” he said. “You can’t sit on your laurels.”

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