Bob Bernick’s Notebook: No signature gathering route to special election ballot

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he doesn’t see the need now to call a special legislative session this spring to pass a law detailing how his administration would conduct a special U.S. House election.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who stunned state politicos by announcing Wednesday he won’t seek re-election in 2018, told KSL Radio’s Doug Wright Thursday morning that he “may” resign his seat before his current term ends January 2019.

All Utah has currently is the U.S. constitutional requirement that the governor will call a special election to fill a U.S. House vacancy.

There’s no law telling exactly how the governor would go about this.

And here’s an important caveat:

— Herbert said it would be up to political parties to pick whose name(s) go on the special election ballot.

— And a failed bill in the just-completed 2017 Legislature, SB252, also had political parties deciding who would be on a U.S. House special election ballot.

So it certainly appears that should Chaffetz resign before the end of his term, then the current SB54-allowed candidate nomination route of gathering signatures WOULD NOT be allowed in picking Chaffetz’s replacement.

That is a critical difference. For one of the main reasons the Count My Vote folks were running their 2014 petition was to take state delegates out of the party candidate nomination process – with the idea that a primary election could find a winner via the signature-gathering route.

The 3rd District is one of the safest GOP-held seats in the 435-member U.S. House.

If more moderate (yet still conservative) Republican candidates for a special election can’t get on the Republican Party’s primary ballot via signatures in case Chaffetz resigns – or get to the final ballot through the petition process – then it is likely Utah Republicans will send an archconservative to the U.S. House.

And as Utah politicos know, it is rare that a GOP U.S. House member from Utah ever loses his or her re-elections.

Then we could, in essence, have archconservative 3rd District delegates picking the next congressperson sometime in the next 18 months – and that person serving in the U.S. House for decades to come.

In his monthly KUED Channel 7 news conference Thursday morning, Herbert joked that no one seems to be asking him if he’s going to run for Chaffetz’ seat (Herbert is a long-time Utah County resident).

But then Herbert said something interesting – he declined to say that he wouldn’t run for governor again in 2020 – the seat Chaffetz admits to eyeing.

Maybe he’s just warning Chaffetz not to start attacking a Herbert legacy.

But when Herbert ran for re-election in 2016, he did say he was planning on retiring in 2020. And he walked that back Thursday.

In any case, it’s too far away to be talking about any race in 2020, Herbert told reporters.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Wednesday that he’s not anticipating a run for Chaffetz’s seat – in part because he doesn’t live in the 3rd District.

But U.S. House members from Utah don’t have to live in their districts, and Chaffetz himself lived a mile or so outside of the 3rd District for a time. And former U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson also didn’t live within his district’s boundaries during part of his House tenure.

Herbert praised Cox up and down Thursday,

Herbert said Cox would be a “great candidate” for any office in 2018 (U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat or Chaffetz’s) or 2020.

“He has a wealth of experience. He’s worked his way up, doing it the right way.” Cox served in local government, then in the Utah House when Herbert tapped him to be his LG several years ago.

Cox “has the talent, no matter what office, the Senate or Congress or governor,” said Herbert.

Herbert joked maybe he should consult with Hatch about running in 2020 – because the senator has oddly endorsed several folks to either succeed him or run for governor.

Chaffetz said in announcing his House retirement that he has three priorities until he leaves – no matter when that may be: “Bears Ears, Bear Ears, Bears Ears.”

Herbert said he’d had constructive talks with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry – inviting them both out to look at the Southeastern 1.3 million-acre national park designated by outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama last December.

Herbert said he remains confident the size of Bears Ears can be reduced to a manageable size, and even the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument can be cut down as well.

We can have fine tourism and energy development in both areas, said Herbert.