Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Herbert and Johnson Walking a Fine Line with SB54

bernick mugGOP Gov. Gary Herbert is walking the fine political line – as are other Republican incumbents in the state House and Senate – of collecting voter signatures to get on his party’s June primary election.

Herbert needs 28,000 signatures of registered GOP voters as outlined in SB54 – the new dual-route candidate pathway law.

In his monthly KUED Channel 7 press conference, Herbert said he’s actually following the advice of Attorney General Sean Reyes office – as given by the Lt. Governor’s Utah Election Office – that the only safe way to make sure a candidate can get on the ballot is to take both the signature-gathering route and the delegate/convention route at the same time.

Herbert added that he’s comfortable having the federal court of Utah and the Utah Supreme Court make decisions on SB54’s constitutionality as the 2016 election cycle continues.

But the fine line of taking both routes does come with some political risks – for the Utah Republican Party is suing over SB54 in both the federal and state courts, and party leaders have let it be known they hate the new law, believe it is unconstitutional, and that candidates could be seen as snubbing party delegates if they take the petition-gathering route.

Four years ago Herbert had several challengers within the Utah Republican Party.

Some believed the governor may be forced into a primary election – where he certainly would be the favorite (he had a considerable campaign war chest and high approval ratings).

But it would have been an embarrassment by Utah standards for a sitting governor not to win his nomination at the state GOP convention.

Herbert did get over 60 percent of the 4,000-delegate vote and won his party’s nomination outright – ensuring his re-election in very Republican Utah.

This year Herbert is being challenged for the GOP gubernatorial nomination by chairman Jonathan Johnson, who has the personal wealth to carry him early in the race and appears to be putting together a formidable campaign.

Johnson last year told UtahPolicy Managing Editor Bryan Schott that he intended to take both SB54 routes this year – gathering the 28,000 signatures needed to make the primary ballot AND go to the state GOP convention seeking delegate support.

However, the first of the year Johnson changed his tactics – announcing he would not gather signatures but just throw all his hopes into the delegates.

Clearly, Johnson is taking a risk. For if he doesn’t get at least 40 percent of the delegate vote at the April convention, Herbert could eliminate him from the race.

On the other hand, should Johnson get more than 60 percent of the delegate vote, Herbert would NOT be eliminated, but move to the primary because he got the 28,000 GOP voter signatures as SB54 allows.

A new UtahPolicy poll of 605 current state GOP delegates shows Johnson’s gamble could be a wise one – and Herbert’s move also having merit.

Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found that so far the 4,000 GOP delegates have a good opinion of Herbert:

— 76 percent of delegates said they have a favorable opinion of Herbert; 23 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the governor.

That’s good news for the governor.

However, Jones also finds that 62 percent of delegates oppose the dual-route SB54.

And 44 percent of delegates said they would be LESS likely to vote for a candidate in the convention if that candidate were taking the petition-gathering route to the GOP primary – and thus making the delegates’ vote moot, for the delegates could not eliminate nor advance that candidate to the primary.

Half of the delegates said they would actually support their party leaders if those leaders decided to deny a petition-gathering candidate the right to run as a Republican in 2016.

So you see the public relations risk to Herbert.

By gathering 28,000 GOP voter signatures, Herbert ensures himself a spot on the June GOP primary election, which is closed and so only registered Republicans can vote.

But if Herbert – because he’s angering GOP delegates by taking the petition route – doesn’t do well in the convention – most especially if Johnson could somehow get more votes than Herbert or get 60 percent of the delegate votes, then Johnson would have bragging rights in the GOP governor’s primary campaign.

Johnson could claim that most delegates – the core of the state party — want him.

Better for Johnson, if he got more than 60 percent of the delegate vote, Johnson could claim that primary voters OWE him the primary win because under the old Republican Party rules Herbert should have been out of the race in the State Republican Convention.

At his KUED press conference, Herbert said that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that he can win his party’s nomination in the convention – no doubt in large part because he did so four years ago.

And Utah’s economy, job creation, and general well -being is even better today than back then.

Still, if somehow Herbert stumbles in the April GOP convention, then Johnson can have a real wedge issue – Herbert’s “disloyalty” to party delegates and/or the party itself – as both men move to the intense, six-week GOP primary race to sit in the governor’s chair the next four years.