Utah GOP proposes rule change targeting special elections for Congress

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert may well be facing a group of unhappy Republican Party delegates on May 20.

He likely will be one of the few in the South Towne Convention Center advocating for a dual-route for candidates to a U.S. House special vacancy election.

These are the same delegates who a year ago came within 140 votes of trying to kick Herbert out of office, giving their majority votes to his challenger, Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson.

Johnson failed to get 60 percent of the state delegate votes and faced Herbert in a closed June 2018 primary, where Herbert (popular among Republicans at large) crushed Johnson.

Here is the proposed bylaw change, which delegates will vote on next Saturday.

The bylaw change has several interesting points:

  • The delegates shall meet within 45 days of the vacancy.
  • Any number of delegates shall be a quorum – in other words, there doesn’t need to be a majority of delegates or more.
  • And a single candidate will be advanced to the special election, there couldn’t be two or three Republicans going to the determining ballot.

This is exactly what Herbert is now battling his own GOP leadership in the Utah House and Senate about.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has been vocal in demanding Herbert to call a special legislative session so a law can be put in place that – probably not by coincidence – reflects the proposed GOP bylaw change now going to delegates in their organizing convention May 20.

Herbert is refusing to call a special legislative session, saying since there is no U.S. House vacancy, there’s no need.

But even more, Herbert says any special election (the U.S. Constitution requires a governor to call one) should reflect Utah’s regular election process – which includes SB54’s dual-route to a ballot and a primary and general election.

All this unpleasantness comes because U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican in the 3rd District, announced several weeks ago he won’t run for re-election in 2018.

Additionally, Chaffetz has said he may well resign his office soon, with rumors flying he may take some kind of conservative TV talking-head slot.

A U.S. House vacancy requires Herbert to call a special election, but without any law in place on how that will be conducted, it would be up to the governor to pick the special election process.

It is evident state party leaders want the delegates to change party election rules to explicitly state it will be the U.S. House district delegates – not Republican voters in a primary – who will pick the replacement nominee.

And in very Red Utah, the result will be delegates picking the next U.S. House members, not registered Republican primary voters, since the GOP nominee would surely win the final election.

There is a second GOP rule change presented by party bosses:

  • If there is ever a U.S. House district that is wholly in one county, then the county delegates – not state delegates – will vote in that race.

Currently, all four U.S. House districts are multi-county – that is, district lines cross county boundaries. And so state delegates from that district vote on all candidates (unless a candidate takes only the SB54-allowed voter signature route to the primary ballot).

But Salt Lake County’s population is large enough that should a future Legislature so decide, one of the U.S. House seats could be wholly in the county.

And in the future, it may also be possible that Utah County could contain a single U.S. House seat.

While state delegates may seem conservative to some, consider how conservative a U.S. House seat picked wholly by Utah County GOP delegates could be?

That could be the result if this party constitutional change is approved by state delegates.

In any case, Herbert is scheduled to address the GOP convention. Herbert, who turned 70 Sunday, has said he won’t run for office again, meaning he doesn’t need the support of future GOP delegates.

And that may be a political blessing.