By Jim Ellis
June 23, 2017 — Last Saturday, in news that has been somewhat overshadowed by the recent special elections I’ve been writing about, former state Representative Chris Herrod, who challenged Sen. Orrin Hatch for re-nomination in 2012, won the special Republican nominating convention to replace outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Alpine/Sandy). Herrod advances to the Aug. 15 Republican primary to face Provo Mayor John Curtis and businessman Tanner Ainge, who both qualified for the ballot via petition signature.
Once Rep. Chaffetz announced he would leave the House without completing his current term, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) scheduled the replacement special election to include an Aug. 15 primary and a Nov. 7 general election. The political parties had the option of holding a nominating convention, which the Republicans quickly scheduled for this past Saturday, June 17. They changed the normal party rules to select one candidate for advancement rather than two if no candidate received 60 percent of the delegate vote.
Almost 800 Republican precinct delegates gathered in Provo for the special election vote. Eleven candidates were on the ballot, and it took five rounds of voting before Herrod emerged with a majority vote. On the final ballot, he defeated state Sen. Deidre Henderson, 415-338, for 55.1 percent of those present and voting, thus exceeding the majority mark and clinching the official party endorsement.
In regular Utah convention politics, candidates are required to receive 60 percent of the delegate vote to, if no candidates qualify by petition signature, clinch the actual party nomination. Because this is a special congressional election, the first held in Utah since 1930, the party leaders altered the convention rules to produce only one winner once 50 percent support was obtained. The fact that at least one other candidate would apparently qualify via signature -– an onerous requirement of 7,000 valid signatures gathered exclusively with circulators from the 3rd District -– factored heavily in the leaders’ decision to change the convention rules. This way, they could limit the number of primary participants.
Sen. Henderson looked to be the pre-convention favorite, but failed to gather the necessary momentum to clinch the delegate vote as the convention process advanced through multiple rounds of voting. Had the rules not been changed, both Herrod and Henderson would have proceeded to the primary after the fourth ballot because neither had reached 60 percent, but both exceeded 40 percent support.
Herrod served three terms in the state House before challenging Sen. Hatch in 2012. He attempted a political comeback in 2016, but lost to a Republican incumbent state senator. Also in 2016, Herrod ran Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in Utah, an effort that became the Texas senator’s strongest state. Sen. Cruz reacted to the convention news with a quick public endorsement for Herrod as he advances to the primary against Curtis and Ainge.
Herrod came to the legislature mid-term in 2007 to replace an incumbent who had accepted a state appointment from then-Gov. Jon Huntsman (R). He and another candidate placed one-two in the special convention, but under Utah law, it is the state party chairman who appoints a replacement if the convention did not produce a 60 percent winner, and Herrod was chosen. Ironically, the second candidate was Curtis, whom he now faces in the special primary.
Both Curtis and Ainge eschewed the multi-candidate convention process and went the signature route. Since Curtis is the sitting Provo mayor, it was thought he had the organization to qualify for the ballot through this more difficult route, and did, but there were questions surrounding Ainge’s ability to organize such a grassroots effort. Tanner Ainge, first-time political candidate, is the son of Boston Celtics general manager and former Brigham Young University basketball star Danny Ainge and a local businessman with experience in the healthcare sector.
Since UT-3 is one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country – Hillary Clinton actually finished in third place here, for example — the Aug. 15 Republican primary among Herrod, Curtis and Ainge will very likely produce Rep. Chaffetz’s successor.