Appeals court rules against Utah GOP, upholds nominating law

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a Utah law overhauling how political parties nominate candidates, dealing another blow to the state’s Republican Party, whose multi-year legal challenge divided the deep-red state’s majority party and left it in heavy debt.

The Utah Republican Party argued the 2014 law, allowing candidates to bypass the party’s caucuses and nominating conventions and instead participate in a primary election, is unconstitutional. The party contends it has a right to set how it picks its nominees.

The Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the law balances Utah’s concern in managing elections while allowing political parties and residents a way to express their political choices.

“Not only does this balance not offend our Constitution, it is at its very essence,” the three-judge panel ruled.

Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the law’s intent was to upend the party’s process to favor more moderate candidates. Tymkovich wrote that the state had vague justifications for passing the law because there was no corruption, fraud or disenfranchisement proven in the caucus and conventions.

The Utah lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections, and Utah GOP chairman Rob Anderson, said they were reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.

GOP officials now must decide whether to cut their losses or yield to the party’s most conservative flank and continue pushing forward with the lawsuit, the party’s second unsuccessful attempt to chip away at the law in court.

How Republicans pick their candidates plays a huge role in the overwhelmingly conservative state, where contests within the GOP often decide elections.

Under the law, a candidate can choose to participate in a party’s caucus and convention, its primary election or both. The Utah GOP says the choice of systems belongs to the party, not individual candidates.

The elections office has said Utah has an interest in creating a system that enables broad participation.

The state GOP appealed to the 10th Circuit after a federal judge in Utah ruled against it last year. The party unsuccessfully made similar arguments in a 2014 lawsuit.

The fight over the law has left the party saddled with debt and played a role in the June ouster of its chairman, who spearheaded the legal challenge.

Anderson, the new chairman, wanted the party to drop the legal battle that left it roughly $500,000 debt, but a wealthy Utah Republican later stepped in and offered to pay the costs of the lawsuit.

The court’s ruling came hours before neighborhood caucus meetings were scheduled to occur across Utah on Tuesday night. Local party members at the caucus meetings choose delegates who will represent them at county and state conventions and choose nominees for political offices.

The law was a compromise that the state Legislature struck with a well-funded group pushing a ballot initiative that would move Utah entirely to a primary system.

Backers of Count My Vote, including former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, have been pushing for changes since 2010, when three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted at the GOP convention amid the tea party movement.

Count My Vote argues that it’s difficult for many people to participate in the convention system and leaves a sliver of party faithful picking more extreme candidates without broad support.

In both a special election last year to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz in Congress and a 2016 gubernatorial election, GOP delegates picked far-right candidates who were later trounced in GOP primaries by more moderate candidates.

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