Utah members of anti-Trump "resistance" group Indivisible that organized protests of Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz earlier this year are now working to play a role in the Republican primary election to fill his seat.
Chaffetz, who announced he was leaving Congress earlier this year, faced angry town halls packed with Indivisible members who he said "intended to bully and intimidate" him. But now members of the same anti-Republican protest group are registering as Republicans so they can vote for a local Republican mayor they view as "the most moderate replacement candidate" in the party's August 15 primary.
The decision to channel protest efforts through the Republican primary was plotted before Republican John Curtis, the mayor of Provo, had even announced that he was running to fill the Chaffetz seat.
Zina Bennion, a Utah Indivisible member that helped organize the Chaffetz protests, said back in April that the strategy shifted toward finding a moderate Republican after Chaffetz resigned.
"Our whole goal was to find a moderate Republican," Bennion told a local paper. "We are not stupid, we know what state we live in, we know the prevailing politics and attitudes of people."
Curtis, who ran for a Utah state senate seat as a Democrat in 2000 and was chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party in 2002, was Bennion's choice.
Bennion, who ignored Washington Free Beacon interview requests, attended the Curtis campaign launch party on May 26. She also put up a Curtis yard sign at her home.
The day before the official launch, Bennion announced to the Utah County Indivisible group that she was training people on how to effectively gather signatures for Curtis.
"Let's help Provo's Mayor John Curtis get the 7,000 signatures he needs to get his name on the ballot to run for congress," wrote Bennion in a Facebook event.
Members of Curtis's family also were involved in the effort to pitch the mayor to Indivisible members.
On the day Curtis announced, his son Jacob asked members of the group's Facebook page to consider supporting his dad.
"I wanted to ask your guys' thoughts about supporting my Republican dad," Jacob Curtis wrote. "Despite him being a Republican, he is a reasonable person that doesn't put ideology first."
Curtis pointed out in the post that his dad "didn't vote for Donald Trump" and "was asked to run for Chaffetz's seat as a Democrat."
Jacob Curtis told the Washington Free Beacon that his dad was unaware of his post, and that he thought it did more harm than good for the campaign.
"Little did I know that it eventually would become one of the negative strains of attack against him—people feeling that he's too liberal," he said. "So what I ended up doing ended up hurting the campaign, and I feel bad about it."
He said he wrote the post because he wanted to do his part and was hoping people would realize his dad is better than the Republican alternatives, but that he didn't think it worked.
"I was hoping that the people would see my point, that you're not going to agree with him on everything, but he's going to be better than alternatives, but I didn't really see that," he said. The reaction "was like 95 percent negative and maybe 5 percent positive."
Whether it was the result of the Facebook post or not, members of the Indivisible group have been changing their registration to help Curtis emerge from the Republican primary.
"It feels kind of gross to be registered as a republican [sic], but I am doing my part to get the most moderate replacement candidate elected for Jason Chaffetz's seat (John Curtis, current Provo mayor)," wrote a member along with a picture of her Republican primary ballot.
"It makes me throw up a little to say I'm a registered republican [sic], though," she wrote.
The post was quickly praised by other members of the group: "You and me both," "I registered to vote in their primaries too," "You're making a great sacrifice for the betterment of humankind," "Thanks for taking one for the team," "You are doing something patriotic."
Kathie Allen, the Democrat that Curtis will face if he emerges from the primary, also commented on the post to thank everybody in advance for their vote in the general.
"Now I invite all of you to vote for me on Nov 7th," Allen wrote. "There's a lot of potential votes for me here if you don't just give up and stay home in November. Thanking you in advance."
A spokesman for the Curtis campaign reached out to the Washington Free Beacon after this article was published to state that it doesn't "want or need" the help of Indivisible.
"John Curtis is a Republican, and will be a strong conservative voice for Utah values in Washington," said the spokesman. "He doesn't want, or need, or has sought the votes or support of any member of the 'resistance' or any other group still licking their wounds over the November election."
Curtis won his spot on the primary ballot not through the Utah Republican Party convention, but rather by collecting 15,525 signatures, a number that more than doubled what was required.
"That's a pretty big feat," Mark Thomas, the director of elections for Utah, said of the signature gathering effort.
It is unclear whether Bennion was paid for her efforts to gather signatures for Curtis.
Though it was reported that Curtis used the help of volunteers and a paid professional company to gather signatures by the deadline, Curtis's campaign committee did not record any disbursements to a company for the efforts, according to the campaign's Federal Election Commission filings.
The committee's July quarterly report, which spans from the beginning of April to the end of June, and covers the period in which the signatures were collected, shows only $14,389 in expenditures, none of which were for signature gathering. Curtis gave his campaign a $100,000 loan during this time.
The campaign for Republican Tanner Ainge, who also got on the ballot through signature, has spent $77,000 on signature gathering, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of his campaign’s reported expenditures.
Gathering signatures is known to be one of the most costly things campaigns face.
"Oftentimes it's overlooked, but gathering signatures to get on the ballot can be one of the most costly and stressful things that a campaign does," a campaign veteran told the Washington Free Beacon. "Especially in a short time-window, signature gathering companies can charge outrageous five-figure sums and campaigns are forced to pay them because there is no alternative if they don't make it on to the ballot."
"For congressional races, it can get even costlier since the people gathering signatures have to ensure that everyone signing the petition actually lives within the congressional district," he added. "Candidates can have signatures thrown out if it's discovered that their petitions were signed by individuals that don't reside in the particular district."
Indivisible has been a major player and highly active within the Trump resistance movement.
Earlier this year, Indivisible teamed up with the Town Hall Project, a group that serves as the central hub for congressional town hall protests across the country.
The Town Hall Project was founded by a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and is linked to a number of liberal organizations. The group's website refers readers to the Indivisible Guide, a "practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda." The guide contains information that includes how to organize "local groups to fight for your congressional district." It has been downloaded millions of times.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of an organization founded by former Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, later partnered with the Town Hall Project for anti-Trump events.
Ezra Levin, the cofounder and executive director of Indivisible, additionally sat on the executive committee of the Tax March protests against Trump. Levin and his wife, Leah Greenberg, have been described as "being at the center" of the anti-Trump movement.
The founders of the group's state chapter said, "Utah Indivisible actually isn't working with the Curtis campaign because we can't endorse candidates."
Jacob Curtis said he did not know who Bennion was and that his post was not part of a signature gathering effort. He also said he isn't sure whether his dad even knows what Indivisible is.
He also said that he has stopped going to Indivisible meetings in Lubbock, Texas, where he lives because of the "unwillingness to even consider the other side and listen."
"I've stopped going to Indivisible—stuff like that just annoys me," Curtis said. "Everybody would just complain about Donald Trump and Republicans. It was just this big echo-chamver where people are comforting themselves complaining about the other side, with nobody on the other side to keep them in check."
The Curtis campaign entered July with far more cash on hand than either Ainge or Chris Herrod, the candidate that emerged from the convention.
Curtis is running as a conservative, but argues that no political party has "exclusivity on everything that's good."
UPDATE 1:15 p.m.: This post has been updated to include a statement from a spokesman for John Curtis.
Published under: House of Representatives , Jason Chaffetz , Utah