GOP Establishment and Grassroots in Bitter Utah Battle as Mitt Romney Seeks State Party’s U.S. Senate Nomination

Romney, Utah Contenders
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The Republican establishment in Utah and local grassroots activists are engaged in a bitter battle over the method of selecting the party’s nominees for federal and state offices.

The no holds barred tactics of some engaged in the fight have provided an unpleasant backstory to former GOP presidential nominee and frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney’s efforts to secure the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

“Romney announced a run for the seat on February 16, 2018,” Ballotpedia reported:

“I am running for United States Senate to serve the people of Utah and bring Utah’s values to Washington,” he said on Twitter. President Donald Trump endorsed Romney on February 19, 2018. . .Hatch said in March 2017 that Romney “would be perfect” to replace him.

Utah Republicans will take the first step in selecting their party’s nominees for federal offices, including the U.S. Senate, as well as state offices, when local GOP caucus meetings convene around the state Tuesday night to select 4,500 state delegates who will meet on April 21 in the party’s nomination convention.

If one candidate receives 60 percent of the vote at the convention, he will be named the party’s nominee without a subsequent primary election. If no candidate receives that level of support, the top two candidates qualify to compete in the Republican primary, which is scheduled for June 26.

In the 2010 nominating convention, an insurgent Mike Lee, backed by Tea Party activists, finished in the top two, edging out incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), who finished third and was knocked out of the race. Lee won the subsequent primary by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin and cruised to a victory in the November general election.

Thanks to a controversial law passed in 2014, SB 54, candidates have another method now for getting on the ballot if they fail to finish in the top two: gathering signatures on petitions. For U.S. Senate candidates, the number of signatures needed is about 28,000.

Most polls show Romney with a substantial lead among potential GOP candidates. But how well that lead in the polls will translate into the selection of nominating convention delegates at the GOP caucus meetings Tuesday night, and their subsequent votes at the April 21 nominating convention, is an unknown.

Unlike the late Sen. Bennett, who had no way onto the ballot after he failed to finish in the top two at the 2010 nominating convention, SB 54 provides Romney with another way to get onto the June 26 primary ballot in the event he fails to make the cut at the nominating convention, and he is taking advantage of that option.

“Romney is also gathering signatures to ensure he will appear on the primary ballot, but said he is using only volunteers to gather them — not paid firms,” the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.

The latest development in this ongoing battle between grassroots activists and the GOP establishment in Utah involves Dave Bateman, the wealthy CEO of Entrata, a software company, and State Senator Todd Weiler (R-Davis County).
Bateman bailed the Utah Republican Party out of “the party’s legal debt of up to $400,000, and funded the continuing legal fight over SB54,” as KUTV reported in January, and supports maintaining the current caucus and convention nomination system.
Weiler voted in favor of SB 54. His support for the continuation of the caucus and convention nomination system is seen as tenuous by grassroots activists.

On Sunday, Bateman released a phone message, which he says was left by Weiler, as Salt Lake City’s KUTV reported:

“It’s a filthy attempt to extort me,” said Batemen of the recording, which has the voice of state Senator Todd Weiler (R-Davis County).

“I was trying to help someone I was told was being sexually harassed at work,” responded Weiler, who once served as vice chair of the Utah Republican Party.

Here’s the backstory.

Bateman, who is divorced, hired a girlfriend to work for him at Entrata. They broke up, and Bateman said Weiler tried to use the broken relationship to “smear” him.

Weiler spoke to a confidante of the ex-girlfriend at a Jazz game in January and said he was told by the confidante—who is also a friend of the Weiler family—that Bateman’s ex-girlfriend had her job hours and responsibilities changed at Entrata, after the break-up. Weiler said he was told the ex-girlfriend looked for an attorney to file a sexual harassment case against Bateman, but that lawyers turned her down.

A couple days later, Weiler called the confidante, and said this:

“It’s Todd Weiler. Hey, at the Jazz game you were talking to some of my very well connected friends, and now I have another friend who’s a lawyer who thinks he could get your friend a million dollars if she doesn’t go to Europe. I think you know what I mean. Give me a call so we can talk.”

Bateman said Weiler’s phone message “was part of a move to discredit him over his outspoken efforts to keep the caucus-convention system as the only way for GOP candidates to get on primary ballots. State law, known as SB 54, gives candidates the option of collecting signatures instead, something strongly opposed by at least a faction—and perhaps a majority—of party loyalists.

Conservative grassroots activists in Utah–and other states, like Virginia–have long preferred the caucus system over the primary system, as it gives less weight to money and more to personal engagement.

Then, in 2013, a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans launched the County My Vote direct primary initiative to end the caucus and convention nominating system in Utah.

In February 2014, Romney announced his support for that effort as the Salt Lake City Tribune reported:

“I want to tell you that Ann and I are supporters [of the County My Vote initiative]. Since the election, I’ve been pushing hard for states to move to direct primaries,” Romney wrote in an email last week to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. “Caucus/convention systems exclude so many people: they rarely produce a result that reflects how rank-and-file Republicans feel. I think that’s true for Democrats, too.”

In March 2014, the Count My Vote initiative “delivered an official letter of withdrawal to Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, formally concluding its statewide citizens’ initiative petition.” The action came after “the Utah Legislature passed and Gov. Herbert signed Senate Bill 54.”

But last year, in the midst of the ongoing Utah Republican Party legal challenge to SB 54, the Count My Vote initiative started up again, this time focused on completely destroying the caucus and convention system and replacing it with a direct primary.

“The Count My Vote ballot initiative would dump the traditional caucus-convention system as a path to the ballot, contending it allows a few party delegates — who often tend to be far right or left extremists — too much power to choose nominees,” the Salt Lake City Tribune reported in October:

Count My Vote Executive Director Taylor Morgan noted his group had gathered 105,000 signatures in 2013 to allow voters to dump the caucus-convention system. But it withdrew its petitions to allow compromise legislation, SB54, in which candidates may qualify for a primary either by collecting signatures or through the caucus-convention system.

“We withdrew our initiative last time in good faith that the Legislature would uphold the deal going forward,” he said. “But it’s been nonstop threats legally, politically and legislatively ever since” seeking to return to the old system in which anyone who won 60 percent of convention delegate votes became the nominee.

State Senator Weiler told Red Meat Radio in October, “I’m not someone who’s pushing this [Count My Vote] initiative at all … I think it’s likely to pass next year.”

“My prediction is it will be on the ballot for sure. I think out of all the initiatives it is the most likely to pass because it will be one of the best funded,” he added.

“I think when all is said and done the public will view the [Republican] Party as having breached the agreement first by filing the lawsuit and trying to punish the people who collected the signatures. I think that’s what the average voter will see,” Weiler concluded

The controversy surrounding the dispute between Bateman, a champion of the grassroots who support the caucus and convention nominating system, and Weiler, perceived by the grassroots as anything but a supporter of the caucus and convention nominating system, is expected to be a topic of discussion at Tuesday evening’s GOP caucus meetings in Utah – one that may influence the selection of delegates to the April 21 nominating convention.

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