Out of the dozen U.S. Senate candidates competing at Saturday’s Utah Republican Convention, only Mitt Romney is absolutely sure to survive — and he alone has a chance to eliminate all his GOP challengers and skip the primary election.
He’s the only one who gathered signatures — 28,000 statewide — to guarantee advancing to at least a primary election, as allowed by a 2014 law that offers dual paths to the ballot. Some convention delegates dislike that law and the candidates who use it because it reduces their power.
“I’m both a suspender and belt kind of guy,” the risk-averse Romney explained earlier about his choice to collect signatures and go through the convention.
But it could offend some of the delegates he needs support from to avoid a primary. He could do that by winning at least 60 percent of the vote Saturday, which by rule would eliminate all other convention-only candidates.
Signature gathering will affect many contests Saturday and is expected to spark nasty fights over proposed changes to party rules and resolutions that might punish either members who have fought signature gathering or those who defended it.
It could be an interesting day in other ways — with at least two convicts running for office and numerous incumbents facing challenges.
3rd Congressional District
The other biggest race affected by signature gathering is in the 3rd Congressional District — and it may bring a sense of déjà vu for delegates in what is largely a rematch from a year ago between freshman Rep. John Curtis and ultraconservative Chris Herrod, a former state legislator.
Curtis owes his win in the special congressional election last year to collecting signatures. He gathered them again this year and is the only one of the five Republicans running for his seat to do so.
Delegates, who tend to be more conservative than Republican voters at large, nominated Herrod last year after rejecting Curtis in early rounds of convention voting.
But Curtis, the former mayor of Provo and a onetime Democrat, appeared in the primary anyway because he had gathered the 7,000 signatures required for that race. He easily won the primary and general election.
Others in the race this year are Henry Rudolph Kneitz III, Michael David Leavitt and Steven Stromness.
Despite being assured of advancing Saturday, Romney and Curtis have still worked hard at wooing delegates, hoping to win the 60 percent needed to clinch the nomination.
For example, pre-convention disclosure forms show that Romney has spent $526,516 on the race so far — after transferring $1 million into his account left over from his 2012 presidential race.
Among others in the Senate race, state Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, reported spending $31,500 (after loaning his campaign $251,000), and St. George lawyer Larry Meyers spent $11,300.
The disparities in campaign spending were based on very different approaches to winning over delegates. Meyers held events in homes and libraries, often without refreshments — and one attended by The Tribune had 10 delegates. Kennedy could provide light refreshments — such as root-beer floats he offered in a guided tour of the state Capitol, which attracted about 50 delegates.
Romney could host breakfasts, lunches, dinners and teleconferences — and some of his events (such as one at the Hale Centre Theatre) attracted up to 600 delegates.
But some delegates interviewed said Romney seemed to try not to be too extravagant. “We had Jimmy John’s sandwiches and chips,” delegate Russell Merrill of Taylorsville said about a Romney lunch he attended. “He seemed to respect that he had us on our lunch hour, but didn’t want to look like he was trying to buy our vote.”
The convention system allows candidates with little money to compete with the wealthy by focusing on relatively few delegates, and many delegates interviewed said they listen with open minds to as many hopefuls as possible. “None of them have my vote yet, but they all have my ear,” said delegate Alona Ashcraft MacGregor of Sandy at a Romney breakfast.
Sometimes the wooing works, and sometimes it can backfire.
“I was not impressed with John Curtis,” said delegate Ramona McKinney of Cottonwood Heights. She said she had intended to vote for him, but switched after he talked about once running as a Democrat because that field was less crowded.
“Romney has changed my mind,” delegate Brenda Scharman of Oakley said. She did not expect initially to support Romney, worried that he lacked Utah roots and was seeking office more as a national platform.
But after attending some of his events — and those of several opponents — “I saw that he really knows the issues and politicians nationally. I think he would be the most powerful freshman senator Utah could elect.”
Other key races
Several legislative races in multicounty districts could be decided at the state convention Saturday.
At the top of the list is a battle between two current House members — Reps. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, and LaVar Christensen, R-Draper — for the seat of retiring Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. Also in the race is DeLaina Tonks, vice chairwoman of the State Charter School Board.
In another top race, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman — a conservative firebrand who spent 10 days in jail on a misdemeanor conviction for leading a protest ATV ride onto closed public lands — is facing Kelly Stowell, son of former state Sen. Dennis Stowell, for the seat of retiring Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
Six legislative candidates in contested convention races gathered enough signatures to qualify for a primary, so they cannot be eliminated Saturday — but they could knock out some convention-only opponents.
They include Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George (facing Mark Borowiak); current Rep. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton (running against Clark Davis for the seat of retiring Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City); and Joel Ferry (running against Kris Udy for Sandall’s House seat).
Three candidates — Brian Gorham, Jack Rubin and Ronald Winterson — all collected enough signatures in the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal. Also in that race is Alisa Ellis.
Also on Saturday’s agenda — after elections — are several proposed party rule changes that have grown out of battles between conservatives and moderates over the election law that allows signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.
Some proposals could remove many of the ultraconservatives on the State Central Committee, who used rules to call a special, lightly attended meeting to force continuation of a lawsuit challenging the election law.
Other rule changes would make it tougher to call such special meetings — and require larger quorums to take any action. Some rules changes could force out the ultraconservatives through term limits, and another would allow a vote of state delegates to remove them.
Another proposed resolution would chide GOP Chairman Rob Anderson for supposedly violating party rules in his tussles with conservatives on the Central Committee — and instruct him to follow them in the future.