Herbert and Johnson Used Strikingly Different Tactics at Saturday’s Convention

Jonathan Johnson ConventionBy now UtahPolicy readers know that Gov. Gary Herbert was topped inSaturday’s state Republican convention by challenger Jonathan Johnson – 45 percent of the delegate vote for Herbert, 55 percent for Johnson in the final round ballot. 

The GOP governor’s race now moves to a June 28 primary election.

I’ve attended state and county party conventions since 1984 when the late Gov. Norm Bangerter – then the speaker of the Utah House — faced several intra-party challengers.

So allow me to make several observations on the Herbert/Johnson dynamic in this weekend’s convention – where SB54 and the Republican Party’s consistent effort to bypass, if not ignore, the new signature route to a primary ballot was on display.

Herbert, of course, took the signature route and gathered the 28,000 GOP voter signatures required. Even if Herbert didn’t get at least 40 percent of the delegate vote Saturday, he couldn’t have been eliminated.

Johnson at first declared he would gather signatures, but changed his primary strategy in January and said he would only appear before state GOP delegates.

So Johnson, if he had fallen below 40 percent, would have been shown the party door.

Johnson played that anti-SB54 card well Saturday.

And it was clear from the basic tenor of the Salt Palace event that most of the 3,890 delegates were upset, even angry, over SB54 taking away some of their political power.

So, how does a high-profile campaign deal with angry delegates – for that is what Herbert faced?

First off, to the best you can, you work the delegates, hoping to sway some of them – or at the very least keep your opposition a bit mute during your floor speech.

Herbert decided on an unusual strategy:

— He brought First Lady Jeanette Herbert on stage with him along with his six children and 16 grandchildren. Not too much new about that approach.

But then he had his wife stand right next to him during his six-minute speech. (Which actually was a good talk, with Herbert very animated, even bouncing on the balls of his feet, waving his arms around and shouting out parts of his teleprompter-aided address.)

With your wife at your side during your address, and little grandkids behind you, less likelihood anyone would boo you.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox did not even come on the stage with Herbert. Odd. But there was a strategy there, also.

Herbert’s campaign counted on a second round of voting being required – neither he nor Johnson would get 60 percent of the first round vote. And candidates would come back on stage for a one-minute re-address before the second round of voting.

Sure enough, the first round eliminated the two really weak other candidates – with Herbert getting 44.4 percent of the first wound vote, Johnson 55.21 percent.

In the second round speeches, Cox came out with his wife; Herbert stood behind him with Jeanette. Herbert did not speak at all in his one-minute allotment time.

An interesting tactic.

Cox, who is an upcoming, bright guy and probably well liked among the delegates, talked about his admiration for Herbert – what a sincere and honest guy he is.

Johnson, in his first round six-minute address, walked on stage with State Auditor “Frugal” John Dougall. An eye-catching choice – and one that showed there was no united front of GOP officeholders for Herbert.

Johnson let Herbert have it – as he will need to do if he has any real chance in the primary race.

He slammed Herbert for raising taxes, for not strongly backing suing the federal government over public lands, for originally supporting the Common Core education standards, and for signing SB54 and taking the signature route to the primary – thus nullifying the delegates’ power in that very convention.

Herbert anticipated the attacks – speaking before Johnson (speaking places picked by lottery) – Herbert said Johnson (he didn’t name him) would tell “kernels” of the truth, but really lead with misrepresentations aimed at a “slash and burn” type of politics so disliked in today’s campaigning world.

It’s always a tough convention for a gubernatorial incumbent seeking a third nomination – as Herbert is.

Back in 2000 then-Gov. Mike Leavitt – more moderate than Herbert – faced an ugly, archconservative convention.

Seeking his third nomination, Leavitt was forced into a primary with – and I’m not exaggerating here – a completely unknown GOP challenger. The delegates were clearly voting for anyone other than Leavitt – although Leavitt got most of the delegate votes.

Leavitt easily dispatched his primary opponent, who had no name I.D. and no money.

Johnson is not in that situation. He has big money – and the ability to make major contributions of his own cash.

Johnson has a good campaign organization.

And now Johnson has the bragging rights of saying he got more delegate votes than did the sitting governor – that the party core actually favors him.

But Herbert is still way ahead among GOP voters and the general populace. And Johnson only has nine weeks to turn things around.

An April UtahPolicy poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates finds Herbert ahead of Johnson among all Utahns, 58-20 percent with 20 percent undecided.

Only registered Republicans can vote in the late June primary, and Jones finds that among the Utah GOP, Herbert leads Johnson, 72-13 percent, with 15 percent undecided.

That’s nearly a 60-percentage point gap, a real lead for the incumbent.

   Admittedly, Johnson has been concentrating on the 4,000 GOP delegates up until now. He has to move his comparisons – criticisms – of Herbert to likely GOP voters.

Does Johnson have the time and money to do that?

We’ll see.

But winning the GOP convention – even if Herbert does get his name officially sent up to the ballot by Republican Party leaders – gives Johnson’s campaign a real boost.

Considering what he was up against Saturday, Herbert should be complimented on just getting more than 40 percent of the delegate vote – he did, after all, sign into law a bill that some see as harming the delegates who were voting on him.

Still, Johnson got more votes than the overall popular GOP gubernatorial incumbent. Also a real achievement.

But the primary is a different dog than a convention.

And Herbert starts off Monday with a big lead in that show.