No crazy statements, no great missteps, no fumbles in the first true debate Monday between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his Republican challenger, Jonathan Johnson.
But Johnson did take initial moves in subtly saying Herbert has not been an aggressive leader, but a governor who has basically let things come to him as Utah climbed itself out of the Great Recession.
And that – leadership — may be one of the few places Johnson can really go politically, as the governor ticked off achievement after achievement in job growth, economic performance, education spending versus better test scores – on and on.
The two Republicans debated for an hour in the Little America Hotel before the Utah Federation of Republican Women, a debate carried live on KSL Radio with host Doug Wright and Boyd Matheson, the new president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, as moderators.
Johnson pointed out several areas where Herbert should have taken the initiative in battling the federal government, or education reform, leading the Legislature.
Herbert said he has done his part, but that current law and court cases say other elected officials are legally responsible for many areas.
“Maybe you should run” for the Congress, the Legislature or the State School Board, Herbert said several times to Johnson.
“The governor has suggested I run for a number of other offices,” said Johnson, chairman of the Utah-based Overstock.com internet discount retail firm.
“But I’m running for governor,” countered Johnson. Adding that is the best place where he can make a difference for good in Utah.
Johnson was polite, and the debate civil.
Still, as a new UtahPolicy head-to-head poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds, Johnson has his work cut out for him in challenging Herbert, being 30 points behind the governor among Utahns in general and with Republicans.
Herbert decided to gather signatures this year, and already has been certified to the GOP June 28 primary ballot by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, his running mate and head of the Utah Elections Office.
Johnson last year said he was also taking the dual-track route (signatures and appearing before delegates), but in January announced he would only appear before the April 23 state GOP convention – where he could be eliminated from the race if he doesn’t get at least 40 percent of the vote.
When Johnson criticized Herbert for gathering signatures, Herbert said it was hypocritical of Johnson to take after him now, considering Johnson was going to take the same dual route, only to abandon signature-gathering to make a “wedge issue” between him and delegates.
“To change his mind is not statesmanlike,” said Herbert.
“A ballot position” – like getting to the GOP primary – “should never be for sale in Utah,” replied Johnson.
If he were governor, said Johnson, he would have gotten between the GOP-controlled Legislature, the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition folks, and the Utah Republican Party and reached a fair compromise.
But Herbert didn’t act strongly enough, said Johnson, and then signed SB54, only to lead to court fights and hard feelings inside the Utah Republican Party.
If Herbert really favors the caucus/delegate/convention process – which Herbert has said time and again he does – then he should “withdraw” his signature route and only appear before the delegates, challenged Johnson.
Herbert said the attorney general’s office opinioned that the only safe way to ensure a ballot position was to take both routes at the same time – and that is what he’s doing.
Johnson’s campaign manager, well-known GOP strategist Dave Hansen, told UtahPolicy that he believes Johnson will get at least 40 percent of the delegate vote and come out to a primary with Herbert.
Hansen said it’s possible Johnson could get a majority of delegate votes – and thus bragging rights of being the party’s grassroots choice.
But because Herbert has gotten the 28,000 GOP voter signatures, the governor can’t be eliminated from the race by delegates in two weeks.
Johnson said Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion plan, rejected by the GOP House, was “irresponsible.”
The toned down expansion, which covers only 16,000 of Utah’s poorest, sickest folks, passed by the Legislature this year is adequate, said Johnson.
Herbert signed the expansion bill but still says Healthy Utah is best as it recoups several hundred million dollars in Obamacare taxes paid to the federal government.
Johnson said he would sign a constitutional-carry concealed weapons bill; Herbert vetoed one.
The governor said he’s a staunch defender of 2nd Amendment gun rights, and Utah gun laws “are about right” as they are.
Johnson signed a no-new-taxes pledge; Herbert declined, saying the state must stay flexible in “reforming” and “rebalancing” taxes where necessary.
Johnson says he would get the state out of any Common Core educational standards; Herbert says the AG confirms Utah controls its own education and student standards and testing and that the State Board makes those decisions, anyway.
Johnson says he would file suit “immediately” against the federal government in attempting to get control of the 31 million federally-controlled acres in the state; Herbert said it would be best to wait until U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s land-swap bill is approved.
“We would have a new national monument by Friday,” said Herbert, if the state “rushes” ahead with an ill-timed lawsuit. Let Congress do its work first, he added, something the all-GOP federal delegation asked for.
It is not leadership, said Herbert, to take the politically easy way out and sign a no-tax pledge – something Johnson did several weeks ago.
Rather, said Herbert, leadership is making sure the economy is “cooking on all eight cylinders,” creating enough tax revenue and good jobs to provide prosperity for residents.
No, countered Johnson, the easy thing is to raise taxes – as Herbert and the Legislature have done recently.
“It is not easy to say I won’t raise taxes,” said Johnson. “Because I know he (Herbert) is gonna raise them.”
Johnson first challenged Herbert to debates way back last August, at the state GOP convention. Herbert has declined since, with Monday’s debate the first of the election season.
Hansen said Johnson hopes Herbert will agree to meet him at least two more times before the June primary, maybe four more times.
Herbert told Wright that Monday may be the first actual debate, but that the two have appeared together to answer questions 12 times already.
Johnson “didn’t say anything new today that I haven’t heard before,” Herbert told Wright in an interview after the debate.
But it’s likely Johnson will have to turn up the heat on Herbert before theJune 28 GOP primary, if the challenger hopes to cut into that large lead for Herbert in the polls UtahPolicy has just measured.