Expect ads, ramped-up spending in GOP race for Utah governor

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After failing to secure the Republican Party’s nomination this past weekend, Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to spend the next few months wielding his name recognition and ample campaign funds to try and beat back a challenge from businessman Jonathan Johnson.

“Herbert has said this would be his last term,” Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann said. “I think he’s going to go all in on this one.”

The candidate who wins the primary stands a good chance of carrying the state in November — Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1980.

Herbert, who has been governor since 2009, was dealt a blow over the weekend when several thousand core members of Utah’s GOP favored Johnson at their state convention.

The governor’s loss was partly driven by his decision to participate in a new candidate nominating system that many Republican delegates see as a betrayal of their longtime role vetting and choose the party’s candidates.

Herbert took advantage of a law allowing candidates to bypass the convention’s results by gathering voter signatures and guaranteeing their names on a primary election ballot. His campaign spent $154,000 on a signature-gathering firm.

Johnson, an executive at Overstock.com, decided to place his fate solely with the delegates — and the move paid off. He won about 55 percent of their vote, over Herbert’s 45 percent.

“Frankly, I’m thrilled that I didn’t spend $150,000 like the governor did gathering signatures that weren’t necessary,” Johnson said.

Both his campaign and Herbert’s acknowledge that issue was big for the delegates, but Johnson’s criticism of Herbert for adopting Common Core education standards and declining so far to sue the federal government for control of federal lands also resonated.

For some Republicans, giving Herbert another four years in office is too much, Johnson said.

“This is not the year for career politicians. We see that at the national level. I think we’ll see that in Utah,” Johnson said.

Herbert’s campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, pushed back against that statement, noting that other longtime Republican officials aren’t facing challenges this year. Carpenter said campaign officials knew the governor could face backlash for the signature-gathering, but they have their eye on the broader group of 600,000 Republicans who will vote in the primary election.

Political scientists say that broader group tends to be less conservative and more favorable toward the governor.

“I know the governor’s anxious to get out and make sure that he’s communicating with the Republican voters across the state and we’re confident that his message is going to resonate with them,” Carpenter said.

To ensure Herbert’s getting his message across, he’s expected to dip into about $850,000 he has sitting in his campaign account for television and radio ads, mailers and more.

“I would imagine you’re going to see a full-court press,” said Tim Chambless, a professor at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Johnson too is expected to spend heavily, but he’s got ground to make up. His most recent campaign finance reports show he went into the convention with only about $12,000 left over in his accounts after spending at least half a million over the past on the race. But he’s got personal wealth and a network of business executive friends who can help boost his campaign cash, in addition to the bump he may get from winning the convention.

The prolonged GOP fight, Chambless said, along with the similar Republican slugfest playing out nationally with the presidential race, could help Utah’s Democratic candidate for governor, Michael Weinholtz,

Chambless said Weinholtz, too, has wealth —having already loaned his campaign $1 million — and no primary challenger, giving him a fighting chance this November.

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