Legislators lobbing threats at Herbert in the fight over a special election to replace Chaffetz

Within the bounds of Utah Republican congenial politics, what’s happening now on Capitol Hill between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republicans lawmakers is about as bad as it’s been in recent years.

Wednesday, members of the House GOP caucus basically threatened to sue Herbert before the state Supreme Court over whether he will call them into a special session to decide how a replacement for U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz will be picked.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told an open caucus meeting that Chaffetz’s resignation could come as soon as next week, but surely before the end of June.

Mix in a “secret” plan by Herbert on how a special election will be run by his office (with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the official state elections officer taking charge), and state politics couldn’t be more up in the air.

UtahPolicy is also told by several sources that if Herbert goes ahead with his “secret” timeline for managing a U.S. House special election – and refuses to call lawmakers into a special session so they can put together a different plan – then the already-troubled SB54 candidate compromise law is all but dead.

SB54 may already have been on life support in the Republican-controlled House and feeling sickly in the GOP state Senate. However, if Herbert doesn’t give into Republican lawmakers’ demands for Chaffetz’s replacement election, the Count My Vote folks had better dust off their citizen initiative petition – because the signature path for a candidate to get on a party’s primary ballot will be repealed, legislative sources are telling UtahPolicy.

In the next few days we may see:

  • Chaffetz tell the Saturday state GOP convention that he is stepping down, and give a date for his resignation.
  • The state Elections Office officially calling for a special election in Chaffetz’s 3rdCongressional District.

The thought that Herbert would purposely bypass the GOP Legislature has some legislators livid.

And all different kinds of discussions (threats?) will be on the table, said Hughes and other GOP leaders.

They include:

  • Passing a state constitutional amendment in the 2018 general session that (if approved by voters) would allow the Legislature to call itself into special session under certain circumstances.

    Currently, only the governor can call a special session, and only he sets the agenda.

  • Pass a law that would say ALL state and federal office vacancies will go to voters in a special election – legislative, governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate and House.

Currently, there are a variety of processes – a U.S. Senate vacancy goes to the party’s Central Committee, which sends three names to the governor, who appoints – the unexpired six-year term filled at the next election.

U.S. House just goes to the governor, who calls a special election. But Utah has no law detailing how that will take place – thus creating the current standoff.

State legislative vacancies go to the party delegates in that district, who meet and send a name to the governor, who appoints.

Sources tell UtahPolicy that Herbert’s timeline for replacing Chaffetz – shared with Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, in a private meeting Wednesday morning – but so far not made public – would set up strict timelines.

  • It basically enacts a truncated general election process that takes more than 300 days and squeezes into the already set municipal election time frame, with an August 15 primary where party nominees would be chosen by voters (the same day as municipal elections this year) and a Nov. 7 election.

Even if that process starts Monday with Cox officially calling for a special election, because of Herbert’s desire to generally follow SB54’s dual-route to a primary – which would include a signature gathering timeframe, a party convention, and 45-day waits before a primary and general election – there would still be oddities required in the time-crunch.

For example:

  • The signature-gathering process would only be 18 days – not the three months allowed under current SB54 law in a regular election cycle.
  • And, depending on when a party calls its 3rd District delegates into a convention to vote, a signature-gathering candidate could still be collecting signatures AFTER the delegate convention vote.

That could lead to all candidates taking at least the signature route because they could be eliminated in the convention but still get on the primary ballot by finishing their signature drives.

That post-convention signature-gathering is outside of the SB54 compromise law. And several GOP legislators told UtahPolicy Wednesday that if Herbert suggests a process that breaks the SB54 compromise, that will sink the 2014 agreement.

And Herbert could be blamed by SB54-backers – and there were some big names in that CMV group – for the ultimate SB54 demise.

All of this is – admittedly — partly aimed at putting Herbert in a political box.

He has to face 4,000 delegates in his address to the state GOP convention on Saturday at the South Towne Convention Center, most of whom will likely be unhappy with him.

And now his own GOP lawmakers are threatening to sue him over a Chaffetz special election, and go after him in the 2018 Legislature over changing all of Utah’s office vacancy procedures. That would include nixing the current provision which has the Lt. Gov. automatically take the governor’s office if the governor resigns – which is how Herbert got into office in the first place back in 2009.

In the House GOP caucus Wednesday, Hughes, and other Republicans stressed time and again that their fight is really a separation of powers struggle – and not just limited to the immediate Chaffetz replacement battle.

And while that may be true in the long run, it is also clear that behind the scenes there is a tug of war over which Republican would have the best chance to win the GOP nomination in the 3rd District. It all depends on which election process is chosen: GOP voters deciding in a primary, or the GOP legislators’ timeline which would have either the party Central Committee (about 180 folks) or the delegates (about 1,000 folks) pick the party nominee.

Will Herbert buckle and give the GOP-controlled Legislature a special session to adopt the U.S. House election process?

Or will he stick to his previously drawn guns, and decide on his own how Chaffetz’s replacement will be picked – using the current SB54 dual-path as a guideline?

Just Wednesday, UtahPolicy published a Dan Jones & Associates survey that shows by far most Utahns, and most Republican Utahns, favor Herbert’s process – where all voters will decide in a primary who the party nominees for the 3rd Congressional District, should be.