‘Trib Talk’: What does Mitt Romney’s primary election say about the Utah Republican Party?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney delivers his speech to the delegates at the Utah Republican Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018, at the Maverik Center.

In this week’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporters Benjamin Wood and Courtney Tanner and columnist Robert Gehrke discuss last weekend’s Utah Republican Convention and the upcoming primary elections for Senate candidate Mitt Romney and incumbent Rep. John Curtis.

A lightly edited transcript of their conversation is included below.

Benjamin Wood: On Saturday, an 11-hour Utah Republican Convention ended without a nominee for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. Instead, candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Kennedy will face off in a June primary election.

Romney is widely seen as the heavy favorite in the race, but delegates preferred the lesser-known Kennedy, a state representative, by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent.

If Romney wins, it will be the latest example of convention delegates being overruled by Republican voters. And because candidates can now secure their place in a primary by gathering signatures, it’s unclear if campaigns will, or should, continue to bother with party conventions at all.

From the Salt Lake Tribune, this is “Trib Talk.”

I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner and columnist Robert Gehrke.

Saturday’s convention was a bit of a marathon, probably a couple marathons back-to-back. Courtney, can you set the scene for us a little, maybe tell us when things started to go south for Mitt Romney?

Courtney Tanner: So, this convention started at 8 a.m., we’ll start with that, and it didn’t end until about 8:30 p.m. We’re talking 12 hours of just Republican madness and chaos here. The voting was supposed to start at 11, it didn’t start until four hours later. Everything, you know, just got pushed back and pushed back because of some infighting within the party.

Things went south for Romney a little bit. He’s going to face a primary, which he says he was expecting. I don’t know if he was really expecting it.

Wood: Robert, you’ve been to a lot of these conventions over the years, what was your read on the room?

Gehrke: This one was a little bit unique. I think my first convention was in 2000. And this one was probably the most divisive that I’d seen before and that goes back to the fighting over the signature path versus the convention path, which way the delegates are going to go. There’s still a lot of animosity in the party over that and that’s what, as Courtney mentioned, they spent four hours fighting over whether they were going to even consider some bylaws changes that are meant to deal with some of that. There’s a lot of mistrust toward the party chairman Rob Anderson right now from a lot of the delegates.

Once they got to the actual voting on candidates, that went fairly smooth. But as Courtney mentioned, I think there was an anticipation that this was going to be a Mitt Romney coronation. I’d written earlier that there was sort of a growing sentiment among delegates that they didn’t want to make it a coronation and they didn’t. They’re going to send him to a primary. He had already gathered the signatures to be on the primary ballot so it wasn’t like it was a big setback for him; he anticipated that would be the case.

And then the other one that was kind of interesting was John Curtis, getting a rematch with Chris Herrod. These two squared off last year, when Herrod trounced Curtis at the convention; this time Curtis finished ahead of Herrod, but they still go to another primary. And again last year, obviously, Curtis beat Herrod pretty handily in the primary, so he’s got to be considered a favorite.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Herrod, a candidate for Utah's 3rd Congressional District, delivers his speech at the Utah Republican Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018. Herrod and incumbent John Curtis will face off in the primary.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Incumbent John Curtis, of Utah's 3rd Congressional District, delivers his speech at the Utah Republican Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018. Curtis and candidate Chris Herrod will face off in the primary.

All things considered, though, I think coming out of this convention, the question everybody seems to be asking is “Do conventions still matter?” Because Mitt Romney, for example, he had gathered signatures, went to the convention more as sort of a check-the-box I think. Everybody sort of anticipates that he’s going to beat Mike Kennedy pretty handily. And John Curtis, again, is a favorite to win that race, so you come out of there thinking “Why did we go through this process in the first place?” Especially if you’re in Mitt Romney’s shoes, why do we bother going, getting beat up for 12 hours by delegates and then going to the primary and winning like we had anticipated doing in the first place.

Wood: You mentioned John Curtis’ race from last year, it’s only been a few months. Courtney, he was eliminated in that convention in November, came back to win the seat. When he was speaking at Saturday’s convention, it sounds like he did a little bit, or quite a bit, better this time. How was the read of the room while he was giving his speech?

Tanner: I was trying to judge it based on who was cheering the loudest. Curtis comes out and there’s all these cheers and whistles in the crowd and I’m like, “Oh, they really like this guy.” And then Herrod comes out and he starts mentioning the Second Amendment and the cheers get louder and louder. So it was kind of harder to gauge than I thought it was going to be.

Gehrke: My read, though, was that Curtis kind of got a pretty tepid response when he first came out. They kind of warmed up to him during his speech but man, Herrod, he came out and there was a much louder ovation for him. Obviously when the votes were counted, that didn’t necessarily translate into votes, but his supporters, I think, were a lot more energized. We saw the same thing with Mike Kennedy. The reception Mike Kennedy got from the room was considerably, noticeably louder than the one that Mitt Romney got.

Tanner: I think Curtis noticed that too. Because in his second speech when they were trying to narrow it down between him and Herrod he was like, “I’m going to give you my cellphone number, because I’m here for you.” It was kind of this last-minute push to try to get over that edge.

Gehrke: On that same token, Curtis came out and made a joke that just bombed. His first line, there were crickets.

Wood: What was the joke?

Gehrke: Honestly, I don’t remember what the joke was.

Tanner: I think it, was it the déjà vu? Like, “I think I’m having déjà vu.” And then it was just, nothing

Gehrke: Yeah there was nothing, it was not a top-quality joke. And then he actually said, “You can applaud.”

Wood: The “Please clap”?

Gehrke: Everybody kind of looked at each other going “OK.” And then it kind of picked up from there a little bit. But yeah, he came out and kind of stumbled right out of the gate.

These convention speeches actually can be pretty important. We’ve seen them sort of turn the tide in some races. I’m not sure that they necessarily did in this race, although Mike Kennedy’s speech — I’ve watched Mike Kennedy for a while, he’s a pretty mild-mannered, sort of low-key guy. His speech on Saturday was really much more energetic. There was a lot more red meat in it than I was used to seeing from him. And the crowd ate it up.

Wood: Mike Kennedy is probably lesser known in the state as a whole than Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate.

Gehrke: A little bit, slightly.

Wood: Yeah, a little bit lesser-known. He did win — I mean, with an asterisk — the convention. Who is Mike Kennedy and what do we know about his record and his candidacy?

Gehrke: Rep. Kennedy is a doctor and a lawyer, one of those people who couldn’t decide between the two, I guess. I’m kind of the same way — I’m a gentleman and man about town. He’s a doctor and a lawyer, he’s been a state representative for a long time out of Utah County. He’s very conservative, but they look to him in the House a lot on these health care-related issues.

He did make some national headlines, I guess it was a couple years ago now, where he actually blamed access to medical care for patients dying in hospitals. Because obviously they wouldn’t be going to the hospital and getting that MRSA infection if they didn’t have health insurance. He got beat up for that a little bit.

I don’t think a lot of people were necessarily expecting Mike Kennedy to run for this seat. There was an effort on the conservative side to try to find somebody to run against Romney. They were talking about [State Auditor] John Dougall and a few other people. And then Kennedy kind of jumped into it fairly late in the process. He’s got some money that he can put into it, although he only spent, I think, $30,000 at the convention compared to more than half a million for Romney.

Wood: Gehrke, you raised this question earlier, why bother going to the convention? John Curtis now has shown that you don’t need to come out of convention with a large number of delegate support to win the seat. Mitt Romney is still expected to win, in June and November, is that still fair to say?

Gehrke: My guess is he’ll probably beat him 3-to-1.

Wood: That kind of raises that question then. For John Curtis, assuming he wins, he’ll be looking at doing this again in two years. In 2020 we’ll have races for governor, attorney general, various House races, the local state legislative races. At what point do we start seeing candidates skip the convention altogether?

Gehrke: I don’t think that’s necessarily going to happen. A couple things: People who are talking about the convention becoming irrelevant — and I actually played into that a little bit too, that was sort of my first instinct — the outcome of the convention wouldn’t have been any different. With the 60 percent threshold, they still would have gone to a primary and they’re going to a primary now so the convention didn’t necessarily send a fringe candidate to the primary that wouldn’t have been going anyway.

But I think you’re still going to see candidates want to check the box. They’re going to want to at least make the appearance or present the appearance that they’re going and I think that’s why John Curtis and Mitt Romney went this time. They obviously had the signatures, they didn’t need to do it. I think for a lot of legislative candidates it’s a lot easier to go to convention than gather the signatures. And so you’re going to continue to see that.

You look ahead to the next election cycle, you’re going to have a pretty crowded gubernatorial field. And so you’re going to probably see an all-of-the-above approach from those guys. They’re going to want to go to convention, but they’re also going to want to cover their bases. Or you might have people like Jason Chaffetz who is really popular with the delegates, going just to convention, whereas you might have somebody like Spencer Cox either just doing signatures or doing both. But I think we’re going to continue to see these conventions down the road.

Another thing that I was told on Saturday, Rep. Dan McCay who won the [state] Senate contest with LaVar Christensen and DeLaina Tonks, it was a little bit of a surprise. He got 63 percent, I think most people were anticipating that there would be a primary between McCay and either LaVar or DeLaina, most likely LaVar. He had told me that he doesn’t get why candidates, for the legislative offices at least, go out and gather signatures. He thinks it’s a liability with the convention group and if you can’t get 40 percent at the convention, what are you doing in politics at this point? Right? Maybe you need to find another job: doctor or lawyer or Mike Kennedy.

It’s a valid point, because you need to be able to present yourself to all these different groups and 40 percent is not necessarily a high threshold that you need to get. And we saw it again and again the signature candidates, it was a liability for them when it came to voting. I think it was a liability for Mitt Romney, it was a liability for John Curtis, it was a liability for LaVar Christensen. In the other legislative races we saw Christine Watkins get a primary, she gathered signatures. We saw Brad Last get a primary, he gathered signatures. I think Ray Ward is the other one who is in a primary and he gathered signatures. And so it really became a liability for those signature-gathering candidates.

So there’s some validity to that. Again, if I’m a political consultant, I think it’s smart to try and cover your bases and so I think the signature gathering does make sense, especially if there’s a crowded field. But yeah, we’re not going to see the demise of these any time soon.

Also one more thing and then I’ll stop rambling, I’ve been talking for 20 minutes now. The gubernatorial race in two years is going to be a big one, it’s going to be a crowded field and that’s why we’re going to see people going to convention. But then again, two years down the road we’re going to see Mike Lee again, and I think Mike Lee is sort of the prototypical convention candidate, even though he actually finished second in the convention when he ran the first time against Bob Bennett.

So I think in two years you’re going to see the convention still fairly strong, four years you’re going to still see it there. Six years and you’re going to see another governor’s race and you’ll probably have some openings for other offices. So again, I think these will be around for a while, I don’t they’re going to fade into oblivion.

Wood: Courtney, I’d love your take on that. Gehrke is talking about this idea that it might be a liability at convention to have gathered signatures. Is that the case and then the second question there is, does that matter if the voting public overturns the delegate decision anyway?

Tanner: I think it’s interesting to note that the first thing that Mitt Romney says after the convention is, “You know, I think that me gathering signatures is to blame for not winning at the convention.” So obviously, there’s at least a perception among the candidates that are gathering signatures that it’s hurting their chances. That’s the first thing that Romney says.

And I think it’s worth noting too that two years ago, Gov. Herbert actually lost at convention and then he comes back and wins the primary. I think the delegates at convention are more right than a regular Republican voter.

Wood: More to the right, you mean?

Tanner: Yes.

Gehrke: Yeah and I think we’re going to see that sort of manifest itself. That’s what I’m interested to see in this Curtis primary and this Romney primary, we’ll have an idea of how disjointed or detached the delegates are from the voting Republicans, the mainstream voting Republicans. Because, like Courtney mentioned, Gov. Herbert got 42 percent, I think, at the convention and won the primary with 75 percent. We saw John Curtis who finished fifth at the convention and ended up winning the primary quite handily. And now we’ll probably see Mitt Romney win with about 70-75 percent. We’ll see John Curtis, who will probably win with about 65-70 percent. You really do see this gulf between where the delegates are and where the mainstream voters are.

From a political science standpoint you start asking, is this process representative at all of the people it’s supposed to be representing? And if not, why not? We’ve talked before about how the delegate pool is not representative of mainstream Utahns, or mainstream Republicans. It’s predominantly white, it’s much older, it’s 3-to-1 male-to-female, and as Courtney mentioned it’s much more conservative. The polls have shown that they have different values than the mainstream Republican voters. So, there is a real disconnect and I think we’re going to see some data points this election.

It’s not new, as I mentioned Tim Bridgewater beat Mike Lee in 2010, and we’ve seen other races where the candidate that finishes behind at convention goes on to win the primary pretty handily. There is this disconnect between the two.

Wood: We’ve talked about how it’s perhaps a liability at convention to have gathered signatures. Is it a liability in November to have been embarrassed at convention? If you’re a candidate, you’re not trying to win the convention, you’re trying to win the election.

Gehrke: Do you mean, like, is Mitt Romney going to suffer from —

Wood: Yeah, has his campaign taken a hit from coming in second at convention?

Gehrke: I think it’s kind of hard to say, but I think it stands to reason that if you had to talk about momentum right now — it’s Jazz playoff time so we’re going to talk about momentum — Mike Kennedy, you could argue, won Game One. So he’s riding a little higher now and it was an upset. He’s getting a lot of publicity, I think he was on Fox the other day and he’s been getting some national attention. That’s going to help his fundraising.

It takes some of the shine, some of the luster off of the golden boy Mitt Romney. It shows that he can be beat, even though we knew he could be beat because he lost the presidency and a couple other races. But it does, it kind of gives him a little momentum — I almost said Mitt-mentum. But I think eventually the financial advantage, the name-recognition advantage, it will kind of swing back Romney’s way.

Tanner: And I think you still see Mitt Romney in the headlines. It’s not Mike Kennedy’s name yet, like Robert said he doesn’t have that name recognition yet.

Gehrke: But the mainstream Republican voters probably didn’t even know who the heck he was. And now they do. Now they’re like, “Oh, this is the guy that beat Mitt Romney. Maybe I should listen to him and check him out.” And that gives him, at least for the near term if he can build on that, it gives him a little bit of a platform where he can start communicating with those voters.

Wood: And we won’t always be talking about Mitt Romney. For the foreseeable future we probably will be.

Gehrke: Oh we’re always going to be talking about Mitt Romney.

Wood: In the future when there’s a race between two more even-keeled candidates, and perhaps even in a scenario where there’s a more competitive Democratic candidate, could that loss of momentum change the outcome in November in a hypothetical scenario where it’s a more competitive race?

Gehrke: I’d look back to the Mike Lee, Tim Bridgewater one again. Those two came out of convention pretty close, Mike Lee was behind, Tim Bridgewater kind of had that sort of short-term boost coming out of convention. But then it sort of swung back his way. So yeah, I think it can be an advantage for the candidate coming out of convention as winner but I think it also, in the long run, the dynamics kind of shift back.

It comes down to who can run a good campaign and organize better, which is what elections always do, I guess.

Tanner: I think that’s a good point. I think the average Republican voter isn’t necessarily as tight on this convention.

Gehrke: They don’t really tune in, do they?

Tanner: Yeah, it’s not that big of a deal to them. They want to see who is going to uphold their party’s platforms.

Gehrke: I guess I would say I’m kind of interested, Saturday is going to be the Democratic convention and we’ve talked an awful lot because the Republicans are the ones who fight over this signature-gathering versus convention path. I’m curious to see if people like Ben McAdams maybe have a bit of a hard time. We’ve seen it in the past in the Democratic convention where Jim Matheson gets sent to a primary.

While we talk about how the delegates at the Republican convention are more conservative, the delegates at the Democratic convention are much more liberal. So that could create a problem for somebody like a Ben McAdams. And I don’t think he wants a primary, because he’s already got his hands full with Mia Love, she was the only candidate in the 4th District race. If he had his way I think he would probably like to see this go without a hitch. But it is a fairly crowded field.

The other problem if you do get forced into a primary is then you’ve got to kind of run to the left and that gives your Republican opponent a lot of fodder in the general election cycle. We saw that with Matheson and Love the first time as well.

Wood: Courtney, what are some of the other races to watch on this weekend’s Democratic convention?

Tanner: The McAdams one is the highlight, he’s got four competitors for that seat. The Senate one will be a big deal, right now Jenny Wilson is the big name for the Democrats. And then one, two and three, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts all have two candidates, but they’re not very well known in the state. I expect to see Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart kind of handily win those come November.

Wood: Courtney, you mentioned how Mitt Romney didn’t seem surprised by the primary. What about political watchers as a whole, were they expecting to see Mike Kennedy do so well?

Tanner: I don’t think so. I think that Mike Kennedy kind of came at this — it was a bit of a surprise. I don’t think it was this huge ordeal but I think it was a bit of a surprise, especially that Mike Kennedy at least percentage wise came out ahead of Mitt Romney.

Gehrke: Most of the people I talked to going in were wondering — most of them thought Romney would get close to 60 [percent] if not over 60. That was sort of the question, will he or won’t he make that threshold to avoid a primary? From the people I was talking to the question wasn’t, is he going to finish first or second? So to finish second I think was a surprise to a lot of people. Afterward of course everybody said “Oh yeah, I knew that was going to happen.” But it’s a lot easier to say that after.

Wood: If major candidates were to start skipping the question, and again it’s very hypothetical. We haven’t yet seen that — Tanner Ainge didn’t go to convention but that’s kind of our one case point. But if that were to start happening, where would that leave the party organizations as an entity if they’re no longer that corralling agent?

Gehrke: I think that’s a really interesting question and it’s something I’ve kind of thought about. The parties need to try to do something to maintain, to keep the conventions relevant. Because right now, like I said, some of these candidates are going to convention but only to sort of check the box. There’s no reason for them to be there. So what do the parties do to give the candidates a reason for them to go? Personally, we saw Utah County last election cycle withhold support from candidates who went the signatures path.

It’s kind of an interesting idea that they could do that and then that endorsement, winning at convention, actually means something at that point. You could get monetary support, you could get access to lists, the party could publicize a formal endorsement. And that’s kind of what they do in other states. In other states where they have this dual track — Utah’s not alone in this one — the party will be much more outspoken about endorsing the candidate that is chosen at convention.

They could do something like that to try to kind of reassert the party’s role in the primary process. And I think that’s probably, given the fact that it’s not looking good for their lawsuit challenging the signature-gathering route, that’s probably one of the only options they have left at this point.

Tanner: And I think we saw the Davis County GOP try to reassert their control, as Robert said. They raised the vote threshold for candidates who went the signature route so they would have to get 70 percent at convention to win outright.

Wood: But only if they had gathered signatures?

Tanner: Only if they had gathered signatures.

Gehrke: The other thing they did, that I thought was kind of interesting, is whenever the candidate spoke, they actually put on the screen if they were a signature candidate or a convention candidate. I heard some griping about that, because then the delegates are, like, “Oh, I’m not going to vote for that guy.” It puts it right out there in front and there’s no question that this person is a signature-gathering candidate. And it’s a liability. We saw that in the Ray Ward race, if I understand it correctly, that’s sort of one of the things that caused him problems.

Wood: Couldn’t that even have the effect of adding more incentive to signature candidates to not bother with it at all? If they’re ostracized and given this scarlet letter —

Gehrke: If you make it that difficult for them, if you add that many more hurdles in the process, it could. You’re almost driving people away from the convention process. So yeah, I think that’s a distinct possibility. That’s why I think the other route of actually, after the convention, supporting the candidate or giving additional support to the candidate that comes out of convention is maybe a less alienating way to do that.

Wood: Excellent, Robert Gehrke, Courtney Tanner, thanks so much for coming on.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to tribtalk@sltrib.com. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.

We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.

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