Election 2016: Herbert Crushes Johnson; Few Surprises in Legislative Primaries

Gary Herbert 04No great surprise that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert blasted his Republican challenger, Jonathan Johnson, in Tuesday’s 2016 GOP primary.

Herbert was always going to be hard to beat inside of the Republican Party this year – the state is on an economic role, leading the nation (or in the top three or five) in just about every financial category:

  • Employment.
  • Job growth.
  • Best place to do business.
  • Diversified economy.

But the size of Herbert’s win is still a bit of a surprise – around three votes for Herbert for every vote for Johnson.

(The final vote totals won’t be known for several days, as late mail-in ballots are still to be counted.)

This wasn’t a victory.

It was a slaughter.

Next on the Utah GOP chopping block: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Weinholtz, who may be able to raise some funds, and certainly is a good debater, but who may have few appearances with Herbert to prove so.

It must be said, Johnson didn’t run a very smart campaign.

Yes, Johnson had to come at Herbert from his political right, for that was the only perceived weakness Herbert had.

But Herbert has always been more conservative than his GOP predecessors Jon Huntsman Jr. (who picked Herbert out of statewide unknownness to be his lieutenant governor back in 2004), Olene Walker or Mike Leavitt.

Still, it’s likely that even Herbert himself – a Realtor and Utah County commissioner before Huntsman’s resignation in early 2009 put Herbert in the Governor’s Mansion – is amazed that he would end up being elected three times to Utah’s top executive job – along with highly-motivated and popular predecessors like Democrat Cal Rampton and Leavitt – two real masters of the Beehive State’s political waters.

Perhaps that is why more than a year ago Johnson – a top officer in Overstock.com and a millionaire in his own right – believed he might have a shot at knocking Herbert out.

But Johnson certainly picked the wrong year.

And, it turned out, the wrong guy to take on.

Even when Herbert handed “JJ” a tailor-made political issue – the Alta Club lobbying fundraising fiasco by “Available Jones” – Johnson couldn’t make much political hay out of it.

It helped Herbert that he was always so far ahead in the polls – UtahPolicy’s Dan Jones had Herbert up more than 50 points at one time.

That allowed Herbert to basically ignore Johnson.

It is hard to remember a time when two serious, well-funded intraparty candidates didn’t have even ONE debate between the party convention and their primary election.

Johnson demanded last October that Herbert debate him.

Herbert said no.

After the first of the year, Johnson got a bunch of college kids to start demanding debates.

Herbert said no.

It was not until just before the state GOP April convention – where Herbert would be embarrassed, admittedly, but not bowed by Johnson getting 55 percent of the delegate vote – Herbert finally agreed to one debate.

But that was at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning – not a live TV debate, like on KSL Channel 5 – which Herbert also declined to give Johnson before Tuesday’s election.

Herbert put up like a billion billboards and was on TV and radio a lot the last few weeks.

Johnson started his TV ad buy late in the process – basically wasting the good karma he may have gotten from his GOP convention delegate vote.

Johnson never got well-known among Utahns, even his GOP voters.

And when his name started getting out there – it came with his negative TV ads against Herbert and over the burning (not really) issue of Common Core and the public school SAGE testing program. (Yawn)

Both of which Herbert quickly threw under his campaign bus – changing his previous support for them.

And Herbert had some big endorsements – like Leavitt and perennial Utah love-boy Mitt Romney.

Johnson had Utah State Auditor John “Frugal” Dougall.

The Utah Education Association – a group that usually loves to dish Republicans – even poured tens of thousands of dollars into a late-primary TV ad buy for Herbert.

All Johnson, a voucher advocate, could really hope for was a low voter turnout, with angry archconservative Republicans (who really weren’t that angry with Herbert) swinging the tide at the end.

But Tuesday’s primary voter turnout will likely be the highest in dozens of years – no doubt due to the mail-in ballot provisions used in 20 of Utah’s 29 counties.

Congrats to the Utah Legislature, who passed laws allowing county clerks to pick the mail-in option – and to the election clerks who decided to really make the mail-in option work.

Early on, Johnson decided to go negative on Herbert – who also had high job performance and generally favorable poll ratings.

The mud didn’t stick.

And once again we see that the 4,000 state GOP delegates, who voted 55-45 percent for Johnson, are way out of step with rank-and-file Utah Republican voters, who gave Herbert a 72-28 percent thrashing of Johnson.

Meanwhile, no great upsets (yet) in the dozen or so Utah House and Senate primaries – where many of the challengers hoped to make points by opposing the incumbents’ 2014 support of SB54 – the dual-track candidate primary access law.

Perhaps the best test of that issue was down in Provo-based Senate District 16, where longtime incumbent Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo – the creator of SB54 – was challenged by former GOP Rep. Chris Herrod.

Tuesday vote totals had Bramble beating Herrod – a strong opponent of SB54 – 54 percent to 46 percent.

The same in a race last night in the GOP Senate District 10 between Sen. Lincoln Fillmore and Rep. Rich Cunningham, both R-South Jordan.

Fillmore was appointed to the seat in December when former Sen. Aaron Osmond resigned.

Fillmore beat Cunningham among delegates then and beat Cunningham by one vote in the April Salt Lake County GOP convention.

But Cunningham got on the ballot by gathering the 2,000 signatures under SB54, only to see the Salt Lake County Republican Party actually OPPOSE Cunningham in the primary match-up.

Just one example of how county and state Republican Party bosses are moving to blunt SB54 on the political front – having lost all of their challenges in federal and state courts.

Early results had Fillmore ahead 55-45 percent.

In an SB54 twist, in David County’s House District 20, incumbent Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, is in a tight race with challenger Glen Jenkins.

Edwards is a supporter of SB54 – and qualified for the ballot via that signature route. But she also defeated Jenkins in the Davis County GOP Convention – and he got on the ballot by signatures, also.

So the county party was backing Edwards, who in early returns was just barely beating Jenkins, 52-48 percent. Go figure.

And the legislative career of long-time Rep. Mel Brown, R-Kamas – a former two-term House speaker — could be over.

It will likely take late mail-in ballots to determine that GOP primary race.

Morgan County Commissioner Logan Wilde leads Brown in a multi-county House District 53 by just 64 votes, 50.71 percent to 49.29 percent.

Ironically, the GOP-controlled 2011 legislative redistricting took Brown out of more liberal political areas around Park City and pushed his district more into Morgan County and the Uintah Basin, a move seen by many as trying to help Brown keep his seat (he first entered the House in 1986 from Midvale).

Final voter canvasses in the 2014 November election took three close House Democratic victories and switched them into Republican incumbents.

Brown needs similar help in this primary’s final counts – which come July 12.

Likewise for Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, who leads GOP challenger Xani Haynie by 179 votes in House District 57 in unofficial results.

Overall, the mail-in balloting in Utah’s first major test of the process seems a success – greater voter turnout in what in the past have been lackluster late June party primary elections.