TAYLORSVILLE -- It appears Republicans will be on the ballot in 2016 in one of the reddest of red states.
The Utah Republican Party's Central Committee voted to comply with a new election law during a special meeting here on Saturday. The vote by an overwhelming number of committee members may end an internal party fight over the direction of the state's most powerful political party.
"I’m sad to see some of the turmoil we’ve seen. I’ve called it kind of the civil war inside the Republican Party," Utah Governor Gary Herbert told the committee.
The GOP has been fighting an election law passed by the Republican-dominated Utah State Legislature in the aftermath of "Count My Vote," a signature drive that would have done away with the caucus/convention system the party prefers. Senate Bill 54 was crafted as a compromise bill, allowing for candidates to get on the ballot if they gather enough signatures -- skipping the caucus/convention system.
The Utah Republican Party sued the state over SB54, arguing that it infringed on their right to free association and the law threatened to "destroy" the party. The GOP also said that if it were forced to comply with the law, it could have meant no Republicans on the ballot in 2016.
A federal judge refused to halt SB54 from going into effect. That led to Saturday's special meeting of the Utah Republican Party's Central Committee, where they were forced to decide how to proceed. Republicans have disagreed over the direction in recent weeks.
While the governor called it a "civil war," other Republican leaders likened it to a "family fight."
"All due respect, governor, I think the 'civil war' term has been overused. I didn’t see any bayonets or cannons when I pulled into the parking lot this morning," Utah GOP National Committeewoman Enid Mickelsen said to loud applause from the crowd.
But everyone agreed they wanted a resolution.
After an hour-long closed-door meeting with the party's lawyers, Central Committee members voted with no debate to become a "Qualified Political Party," meaning they preserve their caucus/convention system but allow for candidates to get on the ballot with enough signatures.
The Central Committee also voted to amend its constitution to have federal and statewide Republican candidates sign declarations of support of the Utah GOP platform and its constitution/bylaws. Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said candidates can list exceptions (like they do already).
"They're just further clarifying that," he said.
The decisions made by the Central Committee will still have to be approved by the party's delegates at its August state convention.
"I think as a whole we all feel great that we were able to get the business done today so that we are preparing for 2016," Evans told FOX 13 afterward.
Count My Vote director Taylor Morgan said in a statement he was pleased with the decision by the Utah GOP.
"We applaud the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee for voting to comply with SB54 and become a Qualified Political Party. This decision will help foster greater participation in Utah elections," he wrote.
The Utah GOP's lawsuit against Utah over SB54 will also move forward, party leaders said.