Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Correction: This article originally stated that the bylaws passed on Saturday by the Utah Republican Party might result in Mitt Romney being stripped of his party membership. In fact, the central committee amended the proposal before passing it in ways that exclude Romney in 2018. We regret the error.

In a Saturday-morning meeting outside of Salt Lake City, a hardline faction of conservative activists and agitators gathered to change the Utah Republican Party’s bylaws in a way that could have resulted in Senate candidate Mitt Romney being expelled from the state GOP and ejected from the ballot. They abandoned the effort at the last minute with a hastily written provision that spared the state’s most famous Republican, but could further imperil the already-dysfunctional state party.

Reached Monday afternoon for an interview, Rob Anderson, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party who opposed the measure, said he was working to ensure that no candidates are removed from the ballot this election cycle as a result of the bylaws. A representative for Romney’s campaign declined to comment.

Utah insiders said the episode is the latest sign of a beleaguered state party consumed by infighting over questions that will likely shape midterm primary races across the country this year: Who does the Republican Party belong to? How much ideological flexibility can be tolerated in its candidates? And must they be loyal to President Trump?

In Utah’s case, the dynamics at play are rooted in a fierce and ongoing power struggle over the state party’s idiosyncratic nominating process. For years, the Utah Republican Party’s nominees were selected not via regular primary elections, but at state conventions. Critics argued that this system gave disproportionate power to the hyper-engaged grassroots activists who voted for the delegates at the conventions, thus incentivizing Republican candidates to cater to a small, far-right element of the party, as opposed to rank-and-file GOP voters. (Tea Party stalwart Mike Lee famously upset veteran U.S. Senator Bob Bennett in 2010 at the convention.)

Then, in 2014, the Utah state legislature passed a new law that enabled Republican candidates to bypass the convention system altogether and get on a primary ballot by collecting signatures from supporters. The Utah Republican Party responded by suing the state, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and plunging the organization deeper into disarray. The case is still winding its way through federal courts.

In the midst of all this chaos, Romney announced in January that he would run for Senate in Utah. Given his national profile and network of high-powered allies in Washington, many in Utah believed Romney’s election would be a boon to their state. What’s more, his overwhelming popularity among Utahns suggested he would be a shoo-in for the seat.

Ever the pragmatist, though, Romney opted not to take sides in the intra-party skirmish over the primary process, and announced that he would seek a dual path to the nomination—both gathering signatures, and appearing at the convention. If, somehow, a pro-Trump hardliner or a Lee-type Tea Partier managed to vanquish him at the convention, the thinking went, Romney would still be able to emerge as the nominee. This has happened before: In last year’s special election to replace outgoing congressman Jason Chaffetz, Provo Mayor John Curtis lost at the convention but then went on to win the primary; a year earlier, something similar happened in the gubernatorial primary.

But over the weekend, the hard-right activists who control the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee gathered for a closed meeting to consider proposed changes to the bylaws. The original draft of the changes, reviewed by The Atlantic, would effectively have required that any candidate who pursues the signature-gathering path would “immediately” lose their membership in the party. In theory, the changes would have meant that Romney could be booted from the state party and lose his chance to appear on the ballot in November as a Republican.

But according to a Utah Republican official with knowledge of the meeting, who requested anonymity to describe private negotiations, the central committee members decided to scale back the proposed changes after realizing the severity of the backlash they would face. Apart from Romney, the new bylaws reportedly could have affected more than 50 office-seekers across the state. (The Central Committee members also tried to impose a “purity test” that would have required primary candidates to pledge complete support for the state party’s platform, but Anderson reportedly blocked its consideration at the meeting.)

“They realized they would get destroyed,” said the Republican official.

To soften the changes, they added a clause at the end stating, “in 2018, these provisions shall only apply to candidates for the first and second U.S. Congressional House Districts.” But some observers believe the last-minute effort to restrict the provision’s scope could invite its own legal challenges.

Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who oversees the state’s elections, told me the state’s attorneys are still looking into the new bylaws and “deciding how to move forward.” Some believe the change could imperil the Utah Republicans’ status as a Qualified Political Party, possibly making it more difficult for its candidates to obtain ballot access.

Anderson, the state party chairman, told me he has no intention of trying to kick candidates off the ballot, regardless of what Central Committee members may want. “If our bylaws violate the Constitution or state law, then I’m bound to uphold the Constitution or the state law,” he said. “It is my responsibility to ensure that no candidate gets removed. I’m holding the line.”

As for Romney, two sources close to the candidate who requested anonymity to speak without the his approval, told me the campaign is more annoyed than worried about the tinkering with the bylaws.

Even if Romney had lost his ability to run as a Republican, political observers in Utah say he is popular enough to win the Senate seat as an independent, or even as a write-in candidate. “Mitt Romney’s popularity in Utah transcends party politics,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Recent polls show that he wins with Republicans, unaffiliated voters, and even pulls in about one-third of Democratic voters.”

Meanwhile, Utah politicos have been left to speculate about the motivations behind the maneuvering. While most acknowledge that the battle over the nominating process is bigger than any single candidate, some Romney allies believe he was the intended target. As evidence, they point to the timing and text of a draft of the amended bylaws—with track changes included in the document—that circulated among the state’s Republicans, and left some with the impression that the language was specifically rewritten with him in mind. (That version did not include the final provision sparing Romney, which was added later.)

Suspicious Romney allies have also noted that the Saturday morning meeting where the bylaws were changed was held at the offices of Entrata, a software company helmed by a local conservative super-activist Dave Bateman, who is personally funding the state party’s lawsuit against Utah. “He does not like Mitt Romney,” said one of the Utah sources close to the candidate. (Bateman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some in Romney’s orbit chalk up the Central Committee’s proposal to posturing from overzealous and opportunistic Trump boosters, who, despite the president’s endorsement of Romney last week, still believe they can get the White House’s attention by going after a longtime Trump foe.

But regardless of the rationale, most in Utah’s political circles seem to believe the foiled effort to target Romney with the bylaws would have done more harm to the state party—and its perception among voters and donors—than it would have to Mitt Romney.

“If Romney … is not able to run as a Republican,” said Perry, “the issue will not be whether voters are willing to vote for him, it will be how they view the Utah Republican Party.”

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