Special election could be the Utah GOP’s nightmare come true

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war. – Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1.

The war over SB54 is brewing, and the special election to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz could be the spark that sets it ablaze.

Utah Republicans are staring at the very real possibility that their party nominee in the special election will never have faced party delegates. That means it’s conceivable that the next member of Congress from Utah will have skirted the hallowed delegate/convention system entirely.

In other words, SB54 will have done exactly what it was designed to do. The GOP’s nightmare comes true.

A Republican will win Chaffetz’s seat in November, that’s pretty much a given. But, if that Republican never had to woo a single delegate to get there, it would be unprecedented, not to say infuriating for Republican delegates.

As of Wednesday morning, there are two Republican candidates to replace Chaffetz who are gathering signatures – Tanner Ainge and Provo Mayor John Curtis. One or both of these candidates could easily make the August 15 primary ballot and win the GOP nomination.

3rd District GOP delegates will gather next month to pick one candidate for the primary election. With the two signature candidates in the contest, we could see a three-way race for the nomination. That means 34% might be enough to move to the November election.

Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP headquarters if Jason Chaffetz’s replacement never went through the convention system and became the Republican standard-bearer with less than 50% of the primary vote.

It’s safe to say those Republican lawmakers opposed to SB54 would launch an all-out assault on the law, which was designed to save the caucus/convention system from being eliminated by the Count My Vote ballot initiative.

So far, this hasn’t been a problem. The 2016 election cycle was the first time that SB54 was in effect. While some candidates opted to use the signature gathering route to ensure a place on the ballot, every winning candidate last year faced the delegates at their state conventions.

But, an open Congressional seat is a political “black swan” event in Utah. Given that November’s winner will likely occupy that seat for as long as they want, it’s awfully tempting to ensure a spot on the primary ballot by gathering signatures.

That’s why a political newcomer like Tanner Ainge is suddenly a threat. Opponents of signature gathering to get on the ballot say that method favors candidates with lots of money and high name recognition. Ainge has a famous father (former NBA legend and current executive Danny Ainge), and he has the financial resources to make this a reality. Under the delegate system, Ainge wouldn’t have a shot.

Curtis also benefits greatly from the ability to gather signatures to get on the ballot. He wouldn’t have a prayer through the delegate process, especially since he ran for the state Senate as a Democrat in 2000. But, signature gathering and his popularity in Provo makes him a contender to win the nomination and the seat.

We’ve already seen proof that GOP primary voters are much more moderate and mainstream than delegates. Just last year Gov. Gary Herbert lost to Jonathan Johnson in the convention, but Herbert crushed Johnson in the primary election. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen this time? It’s entirely reasonable to think that Ainge or Curtis would appeal more to primary voters than more conservative candidates like Margaret Dayton, Chris Herrod or Diedre Henderson.

This is the nightmare scenario that Republicans have feared since SB54 was passed in 2014. If it comes to fruition, I expect it to unleash a fury hotter than a thousand suns.

Why do you think lawmakers pushed so hard to get Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special session so they could set the rules for the election? They didn’t want the very scenario that’s unfolding to happen.

A win by a signature-gathering candidate like Ainge or Curtis would put lawmakers in a box. Republican delegates would be apoplectic that they were “robbed” of their kingmaking ability. Voters, on the other hand, would have their very first taste of electoral choice outside of the antiquated system that gives delegates their power. Which way do they go?

All of this is for naught if Curtis or Ainge fail to get on the ballot. As Bob Bernick pointed out, 7,000 signatures is a high bar to clear. If one or both of them happen to make it, we’ll be sailing into uncharted territory.