No sooner had rumors started on Utah’s Capitol Hill about U.S. Rep, Chris Stewart once again being considered by President Donald Trump for U.S. Secretary of the Air Force than Utah House members passed a new law giving power in picking a U.S. congressman replacement to party delegates.
Republican tongues are wagging that Stewart may be on the short list to replace current Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson who announced she was leaving the post in May to take a job in academia. Stewart was reportedly on the short list to head up the Air Force when Wilson was first hired.
In a statement to UtahPolicy.com, Stewart’s office denied he was up for the job.
“Mr. Stewart loves his work in Congress and fully expects to continue to serve the people of Utah’s Second District for the entirety of his term,” said a spokesperson in an email.
If SB123 had been in place two years ago, today we would likely have U.S. Rep. Chris Herrod instead of U.S. Rep. John Curtis.
And Utah’s 3rd Congressional District would be represented by an arch-conservative instead of a more moderate (but still conservative) U.S. House member.
SB123 is somewhat complicated.
If a member of Utah's House delegation resigns or dies during their term, political parties will have the opportunity to nominate replacements to compete in a special election. However, signature-gathering candidates would be excluded from the process.
And delegates from that district will send up two names (if more than two people file for the office and following party rules) for a primary election., with the primary winners advancing to the special election.
However, in 2017, after then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, resigned, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (Utah’s official election officer) decided to follow current SB54 election law – since there was no law outline such a special election.
And they allowed any candidate in the 3rd District to gather voter signatures, if they so wished.
GOP legislators didn’t like that. They wanted party delegates to decide the nominee. Big fight between Herbert and lawmakers ensued, extended to Attorney General Sean Reyes, and on and on.
In the end, then-Provo Mayor Curtis gathered signatures. And in a following GOP 3rd District delegate convention, Curtis finished fifth, and was eliminated.
GOP bosses decided that the winner of the convention would be the party nominee – and that was Herrod.
Newcomer GOP candidate Tanner Ainge, who didn’t even go to the convention, made the primary via signatures, like Curtis.
And in a three-way race, Curtis won easily – and succeed Chaffetz into the U.S. House seat.
Now, under SB123, a political party would advance two candidates out of a special convention, which means an automatic primary, unless only one candidate files to fill a midterm vacancy. There would be no option for signature-gathering candidates to get on the ballot. The winner of the eventual special election would fill the empty seat in Washington.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, says the sixth substitute of the bill is a compromise, as House Republicans would not sign on to any bill that allowed signature-gathering candidates to get on the ballot for a special election.
“Anything with signatures could not get through the House,” said McCay. “This ensures we will automatically have a primary every time there’s a vacancy.”
Taylor Morgan, spokesperson for Count My Vote, the group that brokered the original SB54 compromise that enables signature gathering candidates said Wednesday they’re not happy with the legislation.
"SB123 excludes Utah voters from special elections and allows a small group of party insiders to choose for them when filling a vacancy,” said Morgan. “Cutting out the voters like this clearly violates the intent and spirit of SB54."
One other neat trick in the new bill: If a U.S. senator quit or died in office, the Legislature would pick his replacement until there was a regular election.
Currently, the governor picks the temporary senator until the next election.
Of course, before 1917, each state legislature picked their two U.S. senators – with the 17th Constitutional Amendment back then giving citizens the right to pick senators.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s spokesperson Paul Edwards says the governor has significant concerns about the bill, not only with the elimination of the signature path but it also seemingly infringes on the governor's constitutional power to appoint Senate replacements by limiting his choices to just one candidate.