Most incumbents eliminate opponents at Salt Lake County GOP convention, but Jaren Davis forces Sen. Brian Zehnder into a primary

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah House of Representatives District 41 incumbent candidate Mike Winder is congratulated by his sister and Salt Lake County Council chair Aimee Winder Newton at the Salt Lake County Republican Party Organizing Convention at Cottonwood High School, Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Incumbents — with one exception — enjoyed a great day at Saturday’s Salt Lake County Republican convention, as they wooed 1,600 delegates at Cottonwod High School with speeches and bags full of free food, T-shirts and campaign stickers.

Three of the four incumbent legislators who faced contested races there each won more than 60 percent of delegate votes, so under rules they eliminated their opponents and now advance directly to the Nov. 6 general election — skipping the June 26 primary.

They are state Reps. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, District 30, with 67 percent of the vote against former Rep. Fred Cox; Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, District 47, who won 83 percent against Stacy Michael Norton; and Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, District 50, with 74 percent against Ty Foster.

Newly appointed Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Holladay, District 8, however, was forced into a primary by Jaren Davis. Zehnder won 56 percent of the vote, while Davis captured 44 percent.

Davis questioned whether Zehnder is true to Republican principles, noting that studies by Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown show that Zehnder voted more often with Democrats in party-line votes this year than with Republicans.

Zehnder, however, told delegates that he “is good at talking across the aisle” and working with people in both parties to find solutions — and said he voted that way to help pass a Medicaid expansion bill to help the poor.

He said that makes him the Republican most likely to win one of the state’s few true swing districts, where Republicans or Democrats could win. Zehnder was appointed recently when former Sen. Brian Shiozawa, who also was among the most moderate of Senate Republicans, moved out of state.

The convention saw an unusual twist that grew out of an ongoing civil war among Republicans over a 2014 law that allows candidates to qualify for the ballot either through the caucus-convention system and/or by gathering enough signatures.

Ultraconservatives on the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee have forced the continuation of a lawsuit seeking a return to the caucus-convention system, which upsets moderates who argue that delegates tend to nominate people far to the right of the political mainstream.

Cox is among the ultraconservatives who have pushed that lawsuit. For the second straight election, it backfired on him Saturday.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah House of Representatives District 30 candidate Fred Cox sets up his signs in the commons area at the Salt Lake County Republican Party Organizing Convention at Cottonwood High School, Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Winder beat him, in part, with arguments made possible because he already had gathered enough signatures to qualify for a potential primary election, while Cox did not and opposes that path to the ballot.

Because they live in one of the state’s true swing districts in West Valley City, Winder — as he did two years ago — told delegates that Republicans should avoid a primary and conserve resources for the upcoming fight against Democrats.

And only Cox could be eliminated because Winder had gathered signatures. It helped Winder win.

But Cox said afterward, “I still think the convention route allows someone who isn’t rich or famous or an incumbent a chance to win. It doesn’t mean they will, but it provides that opportunity.”

He noted he spent only $1,200 to meet all the 51 delegates in their district, “which is far less than the $6,000 [Winder] spent on collecting signatures.”

Winder had spent $10,500 before the convention and campaigned hard with delegates, including setting up joint appearances with U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney, Gov. Gary Herbert and House Speaker Greg Hughes. He even arranged hot air balloon rides for delegates, but high winds forced them to settle instead for donuts and Winder Farms chocolate milk.

Candidates in several races not involving incumbents also avoided primaries by winning more than 60 percent of delegate votes.

They include: Barbara Stallone in House District 22, now represented by Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna; Man Huang in House District 26, represented by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake; Brad Bonham in House District 71, where Rep. LaVar Christensen is running for other office; and Kirk Cullimore Jr. in Senate District 9, where Senate President Wayne Niederhauser is retiring.

Jeremy Egan missed eliminating Marlin Baer by just one vote in their Senate District 3 race. They will meet in the primary election after Egan won 59.4 percent of the vote to Baer’s 40.6 percent. That district is represented by longtime Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City.

In the race for an at-large Salt Lake County Council seat, former state Rep. Sophia DiCaro won 81 percent of the vote to eliminate Roderick Threats. She will challenge incumbent Democrat Jim Bradley, and said she previously won a swing House district in West Valley City “so I know what it takes” to win.

One fiery speech to the Salt Lake County GOP delegates created a stir on social media.

U.S. Rep. Mia Love said her Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, seeks her seat to support “unrestricted abortion and use your money to pay for it,” and reverse tax cuts and conservative gains.

Love said her daughter told her one reason the girl is a conservative is “because if you’re a country that decides that you’re going to kill our babies, you are pretty much good for nothing.”

McAdams responded, quickly tweeting, “As an active Mormon, I find this attack offensive & not the way we do things in Utah. Typical mudslinging from a typical Washington insider. If she spent time listening to our issues, she could talk about that. We deserve better than partisan rhetoric and personal attacks.”

That led to plenty of attacks and counterattacks online between supporters of the two candidates.

In the Utah County Republican convention, legislative incumbents on Saturday also swept away challengers in contested races.

Incumbents who won there included state Reps. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, District 6; Brad Daw, R-Orem, District 60; Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, District 65; and Marc Roberts, R-Salem, District 67.

Current state Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, also eliminated Emily Ellsworth in the race for the Senate District 15 seat being vacated by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo.

One incumbent officeholder was defeated in Utah County: Clerk-Auditor Bryan Thompson. That came after his office sent ballots for last year’s special congressional GOP primary incorrectly to 68,000 independents. Thompson was eliminated by Amelia Powers, who won 74 percent of the vote.