Bob Bernick’s Notebook: A Convention Resurgence

bernick mugSeveral months ago it seemed a given that most GOP officeholders up for re-election in 2016 were going to take both the candidate petition-gathering route and the delegate/convention route to their party’s primary ballot.

But now a few big names are jumping ship – and deciding only to go before their party delegates in convention, dumping the petition-gathering route.

Why?

Internal Utah Republican politics.

Jonathan Johnson, running against GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, is the first big name to switch.

Johnson earlier last year told UtahPolicy Managing Editor Bryan Schott that he (Johnson) would take the dual route.

This week in a press release Johnson announced he was NOT going to gather the 28,000 signatures of registered Republicans needed under SB54 to automatically get on the Republican primary ballot.

Instead, Johnson is going only to convention delegates, where he needs at least 40 percent to make the party primary.

Herbert announced some time ago he would take both routes. But aides have told UtahPolicy he’s reconsidering the petition route.

For some months now Johnson has been lagging in public opinion polls conducted by UtahPolicy’s Dan Jones & Associates.

Those same polls show Herbert is well liked among Utahns in general and Republicans specifically.

Even those who self-identified themselves as “very conservative” politically think well of Herbert.

Johnson is clearly running at Herbert from the right of the Utah GOP.

There is not a lot of room there – as Herbert is more conservative than his two Republican predecessors – former Govs. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mike Leavitt.

Utah’s economy is one of the best in the nation. There’s high employment here, and folks are pretty satisfied.

Johnson needs some wedge issue against Herbert – about anything he and his political manager Dave Hansen can find.

If Johnson doesn’t take the petition-gathering route – and if Herbert does – and both meet in the state GOP convention later this year, then Johnson can tell delegates that Herbert doesn’t like them, doesn’t think he needs them, doesn’t respect them, and that the governor is thumbing his nose at the hard grassroots of the Utah Republican Party.

Herbert, of course, would deny that – but the signature route moots the delegate vote: Under SB54 if any candidate gets the required number of voter signatures he advances to the primary no matter how the party delegates vote on him.

If Johnson can do well before the delegates – maybe even finish first among them – then it could be a boost to Johnson’s flagging campaign.

Republicans might start rethinking Herbert – he is running for the third time, after all.

And look what happened to now-former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker in 2015: What appeared to be an easy re-election got out of control for Becker, who ended up losing his third race for the mayorship.

Challenger Jackie Biskupski – now Mayor Biskupski – stunned Becker in the 2015 primary election. He never recovered.

Does Johnson hope to stun Herbert in the 2016 state GOP convention – and maybe get a boost toward the June primary election?

Herbert professes great love for state GOP delegates – saying he wouldn’t have been a success politically without them.

With no personal money to plow into his early campaigns, Herbert says the delegate/convention route made him a successful Utah County Commission candidate.

And as governor, in 2012 Herbert got more than 60 percent of the delegate vote in convention and eliminated several other GOP candidates who were trying to beat him from the political right.

But will the 2016 crop of Republican delegates – who may be more conservative than the 2012 Sen. Orrin Hatch moderates – see Herbert as friendly?

Four years ago Hansen was running Hatch’s re-election campaign. And with millions of dollars to spend, Hansen put together a great pre-convention/caucus-night effort – getting pro-Hatch supporters elected state delegates in hundreds of local Republican Party March caucus meetings.

By and large, the Hatch delegates were more moderate than the whacko 2010 GOP delegates who booted then-U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett from office in the convention.

Hansen is now running Johnson’s 2016 campaign. And Hansen/Johnson will be turning not to moderate GOP delegates, but to more conservative delegates: A sell that may require Hansen to keep his head down in the race until after the 2016 state GOP convention.

In any case, Johnson’s announcement this week that he won’t be going after 28,000 GOP-voter signatures means the Republican convention is even more important to him now.

And along with some legislative candidates who are bypassing the petition route – and throwing all their eggs into the convention basket – it means GOP delegates in 2016 may not as meaningless as some so-called pundits (including me) originally believed.