West Valley City • After 11 hours of political elbowing and shoving at the Utah Republican Convention — held appropriately at a hockey arena — delegates forced Mitt Romney into a primary election against state Rep. Mike Kennedy in the U.S. Senate race.
In fact, Kennedy — a doctor and lawyer — finished in first place at the convention with 51 percent of the vote to Romney’s 49 percent. The former GOP presidential nominee fell far short of the 60 percent needed to clinch the nomination outright.
Freshman Rep. John Curtis suffered the same fate as Romney, pushed into a primary against former State Rep. Chris Herrod, an ultraconservative who made his reputation on a tough anti-illegal immigration stance. But Curtis, who has been in office just five months after winning last year’s special election, at least won 59 percent of the vote, just missing the 60 percent threshold.
Meanwhile, Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart easily managed to eliminate their convention opponents and will proceed directly to the Nov. 6 general election. Mia Love did not draw a Republican challenger.
A few state legislative incumbents, though, also were roughed up at the Maverik Center and sent to primaries or were eliminated.
Romney blamed his second-place finish — out of a dozen Republicans seeking the seat of retiring seven-term Sen. Orrin Hatch — on delegates’ dislike of candidates like him who hedge their convention bids by also gathering signatures to ensure at least a place on the primary ballot.
Romney collected more than 28,000 signatures and was the only Senate candidate to do so.
Conservatives have for several years fought in court and in the Legislature to overturn the state law allowing signature gathering, seeing it as weakening the power of the convention and its delegates.
“I know there were many people who were not enthusiastic about someone gathering signatures,” Romney said. But, pursuing the nomination through the convention and signature gathering “was right for me. I’m glad I did it that way.”
Kennedy, after the convention, said he expected it to go to a primary. “We’re happy about it.”
Romney and Kennedy emerged as the only two survivors from 12 candidates after two rounds of balloting. Kennedy may have gathered some support between votes by voluntarily helping to sweep up confetti on the convention floor — to great applause by his supporters. Detractors, though, saw it as a stunt and GOP Chairman Rob Anderson suggested over the public address system that the work be left to the Maverik Center employees paid for the job.
Amid much reference to David vs. Goliath, Romney joked, “First, none of us is David. David was anointed of God. And secondly, I’m not Goliath. Washington, D.C., is the Goliath” — which he vowed to battle.
Kennedy, who had handed out “stress stones” to delegates, dubbed them the true Davids and claimed for himself the role of the stone that they could use to bring down the giant of the Washington establishment.
The state lawmaker certainly was the underdog by the traditional measure of name recognition and campaign funding. Romney reported spending $526,516 of the $1 million he transferred from his leftover presidential account. Kennedy reported an outlay of $31,500.
“I’m tired,” Kennedy told delegates before the last vote. “You know what I’m really tired of? I’m tired of business as usual in Washington, D.C. If you want things to change, you need to vote for change.”
Meanwhile, Romney told delegates, “You know me well and you know the things I stand for. … I’m going to get things done for Utah.”
Romney volunteers tried to sway some last-minute voters during the hourslong convention by tossing water bottles and Twinkies to tired delegates sitting in the arena.
But while many in the crowd were wearing “Team Mitt” hats, there were also a few T-shirts accusing Romney of being a “RINO” — Republican in name only.
Eariler in the convention, the retiring Hatch gave his farewell to the state Republican convention. “Serving in the Senate has been the privilege of a lifetime for me,” he said, his words followed by confetti cannons blasting miniature U.S. flags into the air to celebrate his 42 years of service.
In what was largely a rematch from the special election convention last year, Curtis faces Herrod in the 3rd District race.
“Is anyone else having a deja vu moment? Is it just me or were we just here?” Curtis joked. He lost to Herrod at convention last year but got on the primary ballot — and won — after collecting signatures.
Convention delegates tend to be more conservative than average Republican voters, and Herrod’s speech played well to that, getting the loudest cheers and whistles when mentioning the Second Amendment and Russia.
“We have to counter the leftist rhetoric that is out there,” he said.
In an attempt to sway voters after knocking out three lesser-known candidates, Curtis gave out his personal cellphone number, declaring into the microphone: “I’ll be there for you.” It wasn’t enough — but the margin was narrow. The representative, who’s been in office for five months, got 58.75 percent of the vote. Herrod nabbed 41.25 percent.
“I promised delegates that I could be the kind of congressman that could get things done,” Curtis said.
Earlier in the day, a handful of state legislative incumbents got beat up in the smaller breakout elections.
Delegates forced Reps. Brad Last, St. George, and Christine Watkins, Price, into primaries after each failed to gain 60 percent of the votes in their districts.
Last, the powerful House budget chairman, will square off with Mark Borowiak. Last won 53 percent of delegate votes to 47 percent for Borowiak.
Watkins — a former Democrat who changed parties a few years ago — will face Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter in the primary. Each won 50 percent.
Also, current Rep. LaVar Christensen, Draper, was eliminated in his race against fellow Rep. Dan McCay, Riverton, for the seat of retiring Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. Also defeated was DeLaina Tonks, vice chairwoman of the state Charter School Board.
McCay won the nomination with 63 percent of the vote and will face Democrat Christian Burridge, a Draper attorney, in the Nov. 6 general election.
In a race for the seat of retiring Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, current Rep. Scott Sandall, of Tremonton, finished second at the convention, with 47 percent of the vote. Finishing first was former Brigham City Mayor Clark Davis who won 53 percent. They will face each other in the primary.
Joel Ferry won 63 percent of the vote to eliminate Kris Udy in a race for Sandall’s House seat.
Two incumbent legislators won more than 60 percent of the vote in their races to advance to the general election: Reps. Derrin Owens, Fountain Green, and Carl Albrecht, Richfield.
In one of the mostly closely watched races in the convention to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman eliminated Kelly Stowell by winning 72 percent of the vote.
In other races, a three-way primary — by candidates who all qualified by collecting signatures — will be held In the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal. Qualifying are Brian Gorum, Jack Rubin and Ronald Winterton.
Gorum won 51 percent of final-round delegate votes and Winterton captured 47 percent. Rubin would have been eliminated had he not gathered signatures.
An ongoing civil war between moderates and conservatives in the party bogged down the convention for several hours.
Conservatives were attempting to block consideration of bylaw changes that could remove from the state central committee many members who have pushed a lawsuit challenging the state’s election law allowing signature gathering.
The proposals led to loud catcalls, shouts and chants from conservatives as former National Committeewoman Enid Mickelsen ruled that consideration of the bylaws was in order. The ruling was challenged, and wrangling over it took several hours.
Finally, delegates decided to remove all proposed amendments and resolutions from the agenda for this year and then proceeded to elections, but the arguments over rules took so much time, some delegates left before voting on candidates.
In his speech to the convention, party Chairman Rob Anderson called for an end to in-fighting: “We are divided because we choose to be divided. … We look at ways to tear each other down, rather than ways to build each other up.”
Outside, though, posters lined the driveway leading into the event that mocked his leadership. “Resign Rob Anderson!” read one. “I’m tired of being Rob’d!” said another.
And by the end of the convention, the American flag hanging behind the stage had sagged down on the right side.