It’s not very often in a major Utah political race one can say every vote counts.
For U.S. Senate, Congress or governor’s election, the victor is most likely to be thousands, if not tens of thousands of votes ahead of the second-place finisher.
Not so Saturday in the state Republican Convention.
Important races were decided on just dozens of votes.
Or, in the case of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch’s failure to eliminate former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, it was 16 votes out of 3,908 delegates casting ballots.
Even closer for former Utah House Speaker Dave Clark: If he had gotten just 7 2nd District delegates to switch their votes to him, he would have made it into a primary.
Can you say: “By the hair of his chinny-chin chin?”
Hatch fell 32 votes short of getting 60 percent of the delegate vote.
Either 32 more delegates could have shown up and voted for Hatch in Sandy’s South Towne Center, or 16 Liljenquist voters could have changed their minds in the second round of electronic voting and cast ballots for Hatch instead.
Either way, Hatch’s 59.1862 percent would have turned into 60.005 percent and Utah’s senior senator would have avoided a nine-week primary race with Liljenquist.
“Wow!” Liljenquist told UtahPolicy just before he left the convention hall as top campaign support Holly Richardson order Liljenquist and his wife to “go home and rest, you need it!”
“It was so close,” said Liljenquist. “This is so cool!”
Now Hatch will have to spend even more money – he’s already spent more than $4 million over the last year – to convince Utah registered Republicans to show up June 26 and cast their ballots for the 36-year incumbent.
Hatch has already pledged – as he repeated in his first speech to delegates Saturday – that at 78 this will be his last election.
He clearly wanted to show his energy and determination, at several points in his address shouting at delegates and pumping his hand up and down.
His campaign manager, former state party chairman Dave Hansen, had predicted a Hatch victory at 63 percent of the delegate vote.
In an unprecedented effort, Hatch and Hansen had worked Utah’s unique caucus/convention system, with Hansen saying if it was possible to organize tens of thousands of rank-and-file Republicans to come to the March 15 neighbor precinct caucuses and elect Hatch state delegates, this campaign would do it.
Hatch’s convention chances were further helped – most political insiders believe – by the LDS Church’s (also) unprecedented effort to get members to attend the political party caucus of their choice, and by the state GOP’s never-before $300,000 turn-out-the-caucus effort.
For several weeks, Hatch’s internal delegate polling – shared with the public – showed the senator at between 61 percent and 63 percent support.
But the poll results were always within the margin of error on whether Hatch could get the 60 percent.
Hatch put on a brave face, telling a gaggle of local and national media reporters after the vote that this was a “big win” by him just to get out of the convention and into a primary.
Few are seeing it that way Monday.
Hatch had hoped to save his money to take on the Democratic nominee in November – but since it is almost a done deal that Utahns will send a Republican to the U.S. Senate this fall -- what Hatch really wanted to do was squash national stories about his vulnerability in his home (and very Republican) state and to free up time where he could campaign for Mitt Romney and other GOP U.S. Senate candidates.
Hatch said even with a primary against Liljenquist, if Romney calls, he will be on a plane campaigning for him.
And, said Hatch, he still anticipates visiting “most, if not all” of the nine states where national Republicans hope to pick up Democratic Senate seats – enough to give the Republicans a majority in the 100-member body.
While most news organizations Sunday were leading with Hatch’s close race – and forced primary – the two really big surprises Saturday were the elimination of two former state legislators in congressional races where just a few months ago they were supposed to win their nominations at the convention.
Clark, R-Santa Clara, was knocked out of the 2nd District race by newcomer Chris Stewart, who is now the favorite to take the redrawn seat.
And former state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, was eliminated by a confident and clearly-surging Mia Love, mayor of little Saratoga Springs in northern Utah County.
Just 18 months ago, Clark was considered a political juggernaut. He was a popular speaker seeking a second leadership term following the 2010 GOP election sweeps in Utah.
He was clearly heading for a top race in 2012, maybe governor, maybe Congress.
But by one vote he was upset in the speaker’s race by Utah’s first female speaker, Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.
When Clark turned his sites to the 2nd Congressional District, many predicted a tough Clark/Jim Matheson showdown.
But Matheson, Utah’s lone Democrat in Congress, decided to jump to the 4th District after the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew his 2nd District to make it much more Republican.
Clark was then the inside leader there until Stewart, brother of Federal Court Judge Ted Stewart, jumped into the 2nd District race.
Being from south Davis County, Stewart quickly became the man to beat in the 2nd District, although most insiders and polls argued that Clark had a good chance to finish second in the state convention.
The ugly side of convention politics showed its face Saturday, as cross-charges of dirty dealing and rumormongering hit the 1,000 2nd District delegates.
As down-ticket 2nd District candidates lambasted Stewart – one calling him a “liar” – Clark rallied support from his former competitors.
After the first round of voting, Cherilyn Eagar, Chuck Williams and Howard Wallack withdrew, throwing their support to Clark, bringing charges of backroom deals in an effort to stop Stewart in the convention.
Stewart was only 10 percentage points ahead of Clark going into the final head-to-head match-up. But Stewart pulled away, winning 61.57 percent to 38.34 percent for Clark.
If Clark had gotten just 13 more votes he would have reached the magical 40 percent level, making it into a primary with Stewart.
The sad part is – while the convention as a whole used neat electronic number pads hung around delegates’ necks to vote quickly in statewide races and in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts – because there were 11 candidates in the 2nd District, and the pads were set up to only count up to 10 candidates, electronic voting couldn’t be used in the 2nd District.
It was back to old scanner cards there. And 921 delegates voted in the first round in the 2nd District. But as night wore on, delegates dropped away (or were disgusted with the dirty politicking and either didn’t vote or left out of frustration.)
Only 830 2nd District delegates cast ballots in the final – the third – round of voting.
If 13 pro-Clark delegates stuck around to cast ballots that last round, Clark would be in a primary.
Delegates voted to conduct an investigation into what happened in the 2nd District campaigning. But it’s unlikely anything can be done after the votes are cast.
If there was any kind of voting irregularities itself, Clark could always go to court and ask a judge to put him on the primary ballot. But dirty politicking, or back-room deal-making – doesn’t constitute an illegal vote count per se.
Meanwhile, Wimmer, who many GOP insiders considered a shoe-in convention win just months ago, finished a startling distant second to Love, and is out of the race.
Love told UtahPolicy last week at the Salt Lake County GOP Convention that she would either win the nomination Saturday or be the leader going into a primary with Wimmer.
She called it right, winning 70.46 percent of the vote in the second round.
Wimmer actually faded in the final match-up. He got 256 votes in the first round, only 231 in the second round, 25 votes less.
In the multi-county state Senate and House races no incumbents were defeated, although several were forced into primaries. (More on those races in later UtahPolicy stories.)
Oh, and not to be forgotten, Gov. Gary Herbert won an impressive victory Saturday, eliminating all of his GOP challengers.
Herbert now goes directly to the November election.
Utah has not elected a Democratic governor since 1980 and there’s no reason to suppose Herbert won’t win re-election this year.
UtahPolicy asked Herbert several times if he’ll consider a third run for governor in 2016. “I know you’re trying to bait me,” answered the governor, who said it is way too early to even think about that.
He did note that he was surprised that the issue of the “common core” curriculum sprung up the last several weeks and he will have to “educate” Utah voters about it.
Otherwise, with a huge war chest and good popularity ratings, it appears Herbert is well on his way to winning his first full four-year term as governor.
You can read all the results of the state GOP convention at: http://utahgop.wordpress.com.