Bob Bernick’s notebook: Picking a running mate is a crucial choice

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Three of the Republican gubernatorial candidates this year are going with a tried-and-true method in picking their lieutenant governor running mates: Get someone who has already won an election in Utah, and is likely on your political right.

What is so different in the selections is that for former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and former state GOP chair Thomas Wright, they have picked early — way early by historical standards.

Cox announced Thursday that his LG running mate is state Sen. Deidre Henderson — who just said Wednesday that she is not running for her Spanish-Fork-based Senate seat this year.

Several weeks ago, Huntsman announced that his LG is Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi.

And Wright got the ball rolling when he announced way back in January that his LG pick is retiring U.S. House Rep. Rob Bishop, in the state’s northern District 1.

A newcomer to the GOP race, Jan Garbett, also this week picked Joe Jarvis as her LG running mate. Jarvis announced in January he was running for the U.S. House from District 2 under the United Utah Party banner, but never actually filed. Before jumping to the new party, Jarvis was a long-time Republican, and so is back under the GOP banner again.

It wasn’t so long ago that gubernatorial candidates waited until just before their party’s state delegate nominating convention to say who would be their running mate.

Sometimes the announcement wasn’t made until the convention itself — which could prove a hassle, for technically the delegates had to certify the LG candidate by a vote, and it wasn’t unusual for a crowded-field gubernatorial candidate, who came out of the convention, to have to hustle to get an LG candidate to say yes — all while the crumply delegates and media reporters had to stick around for that process/vote to take place.

Huntsman, way back in 2004, picked then-Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert as his LG candidate, getting a nice guy who could draw conservative Utah County voters to the ticket.

Voters didn’t much figure Herbert would become governor in just five years, as Huntsman left after winning a landslide second term to become ambassador to China.

But there was an inkling, perhaps: Former Gov. Mike Leavitt resigned his post in 2002 to enter the George W. Bush administration, making LG Olene Walker governor

Anyway, Huntsman went back to the political well this year, picking Provo Mayor Kaufusi — a Utah County elected official.

Cox is following the Huntsman playbook: Going into Utah County to pick a woman LG, Henderson, who has won an election there before.

Wright may have gotten the greatest prize in Bishop, even if he’s not from Utah County, if you look at previous vote-counts.

Bishop is a proven conservative partisan — and historically state GOP delegates/voters from the 1st District have loved him.

In his 2018 election — his ninth — Bishop got 156,692 votes, or 61.1 percent against his Democratic challenger.

That’s a lot to bring to the governor’s race. Bishop also has a large war chest of several hundred thousand dollars to help the Wright/Bishop ticket.

Henderson was first elected eight years ago in her southern Utah County district, getting 28,592 votes in her 2016 re-election. She finished second in a special GOP 2017 convention to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd U.S. House district, and because the Republicans changed the rules she didn’t advance to a primary — only the convention winner did — where he was smashed by then-Provo Mayor John Curtis (who got to the primary via signatures).

Kaufusi succeeded Curtis as Provo mayor, getting 5,856 votes, or 45 percent, in a three-way, non-partisan race in November 2017.

If one only looks at the votes the LG candidates got in previous races for a different office, clearly Bishop is ahead.

But it is rare that LG candidates bring a whole lot of votes with them in convention or primary races.

The idea is to balance the ticket, either politically, geographically, gender, or, if possible, getting two or more attributes in the same person.

Wright is an unknown quantity now, so getting a U.S. conservative congressman who is known in his district, if not so much statewide, is a plus for Wright. Getting an old white guy with white hair, not so much.

Huntsman and Cox are relatively well-known by voters, polling shows.

So they went with Utah County women, who are not well-known across the state, even if more so in their own county.

BYU fans (and some of them are fanatics, and so will know this) will recognize Kaufusi, not for her mayoral election, perhaps, but her football connections — her husband is a former BYU line coach, two sons play(ed) football at BYU. Or is it three? Hard for a University of Utah grad (me) to know.

Henderson may be well-known on Utah’s Capitol Hill, but not much of anywhere else.

Polling shows most Utahns can’t name their state House or Senate member, but certainly Henderson has many connections in and around Spanish Fork.

In a primary race, even a statewide one, it pays to have an LG that can say a lot of Republican delegates and voters have trusted them previously, in their own elections.

Kaufusi, running in a nonpartisan race, didn’t go through a GOP delegate convention and may not be seen as a partisan. But her BYU credentials count for a lot, as well. She does identify as a Republican.

Bishop is certainly in that GOP/partisan case. Kaufusi and Henderson less so.

As of this column’s publication, several of the GOP gubernatorial candidates haven’t picked a LG yet — including former state House speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, and Provo businessman Jeff Burningham.

Hughes and Newton may have been open to LG offers themselves, if they came from poll leaders Huntsman and Cox. But the calls never came to them.

Burningham likely will be looking at someone from Salt Lake County or north.

And is there another Utah County elected woman for Hughes?

How about a conservative elected man from that county for Newton? (No shortage there, I’m sure.)

An all-woman GOP gubernatorial ticket would be a first for this state. (Walker ran with a LG man when she lost in convention in 2004 and Garbett has tapped Jarvis this year.)

Some would say it doesn’t matter much who is Utah’s lieutenant governor.

But, then, remember Huntsman and Leavitt.

And, so, the crop of LG GOP candidates this year could end up being governor, as well. Stay tuned.