Analysis: Who has upper hand in fight over special election?

In the fight over how Congressman Jason Chaffetz will be replaced in the event he resigns, Gov. Gary Herbert has an advantage. He’s by far the most popular politician in the 3rd Congressional District.

Herbert, of course, isn’t running to replace Chaffetz. But in his disagreement with key legislative leaders over the special election process, he enjoys a lot of political capital. He can use it to fend off legislative efforts to dictate how party nominees are chosen in a special election.

In case you don’t remember, Herbert is perfectly happy to use Utah’s current election process in a special election, allowing candidates to get on the election ballot either by gathering sufficient signatures or by going through the caucus/convention system – or both.

Republican Party leaders and some legislators, on the other hand, argue that political parties ought to choose the nominees in the event of a congressional vacancy. A special election should be conducted quickly so a vacancy doesn’t last very long, they say.

Herbert and Count My Vote leaders point out that if party delegates or party central committees choose the nominees, then general party voters are excluded from the process. The winner is likely to stay in office for many years, so it’s more important to do it right than to rush the process, they say.

Changing the current election process would require a special legislative session, which legislative leaders are pushing for. But Utah’s constitution allows only the governor to call a special session, and only the governor can determine agenda items.

So Herbert has the upper hand legally, and perhaps also politically. A new Dan Jones & Associates poll shows that Herbert is significantly more popular than any other politician in the very conservative 3rd Congressional District, which is dominated by Utah County.

Herbert enjoys a 71 percent approval rating in the 3rd District among all voters, higher than Chaffetz at 56 percent; Sen. Mike Lee at 54 percent; Sen. Orrin Hatch at 49 percent; and Pres. Trump at 49 percent.

And among Republicans in the 3rd District, Herbert really shines. He enjoys a whopping 87 percent approval rating, compared to Chaffetz at 77 percent; Lee at 74 percent; Hatch at 68 percent; and Trump at 71 percent.

Most of the potential candidates to replace Chaffetz are barely known in the district.

Herbert has said he isn’t planning to seek re-election when his term ends in 2020, so one might argue that his approval rating is moot. But having that kind of voter support certainly still helps in achieving his policy priorities.

So Herbert has plenty of goodwill among voters if this disagreement turns into a political fight. And asserting that all voters should have a say in selecting party nominees, rather than just delegates or party central committee members, isn’t a hard argument to win.

Of course, Herbert needs to maintain a good relationship with the Legislature. But legislators need him as much as he needs them. He can sign or veto their bills.

The fact that he is governor, along with his prodigious political capital and public support, gives Herbert plenty of firepower on this issue.