Gehrke: Utah’s Republican convention was a marathon of odd candidates, voting errors and delegate curveballs

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

West Valley City • The outcome of the marquee contest for the U.S. Senate ended up in a shocker, with state Rep. Michael Kennedy upsetting superstar Mitt Romney, 51 percent to 49 percent.

But the storm clouds of discontent were there well before the votes were cast.

Richard Howard, a delegate from Sandy, came into the convention unsure whom he was voting for but knew whom he wasn’t supporting. “Not Mitt, that’s for damn sure.”

“He’s following the Hillary Clinton playbook … moving to a state where he thinks he can get elected,” Howard said. “He’s not a Utahn. I’m a lifelong Utahn. I want somebody who has grown up here and understands the issues. He’s a carpetbagger.”

Dee Anderson of Salt Lake City modified a Romney campaign shirt, smudging it with dirt and scrawling on it: “Romney is Utah’s Swamp.” He was not a fan. “We’ve got plenty of qualified people without elitists coming in.”

“Mitt is a Democrat,” said Lloyd Dauer of Layton, who said he went to a Romney event where the candidate essentially said that, now he’s in Utah, he’ll act like Utahns want him to act. “Well, Mitt, how do you want to act? What are your principles?”

Before the convention, a crush of delegates huddled around Romney, posing for selfies with the former presidential contender and asking questions, including the most polarizing issue among the crowd: whether he supports the convention system or prefers gathering signatures to get to the primary ballot.

As a candidate, Romney said, he “recused himself” from the fight between Count My Vote — the group that pushed the ballot initiative that led to the signature path — and Keep My Voice, the group fighting to get rid of it.

Although, in 2014, Romney endorsed Count My Vote and primaries, saying conventions didn’t produce candidates who represent mainstream voters. His Senate campaign gathered signatures and went to the convention.

Romney sweetened the deal for delegates by handing out red fleece vests that, despite all the patriotic pro-America rhetoric, were made in China.

Senate candidate Jeremy Friedbaum used prop comedy to bash Romney during his speech, saying one of the other candidates had left a carpetbag backstage and then reading quotes from Romney supporting the right of gay couples to adopt.

Should gay couples be able to adopt, Friedbaum asked, “the same as good Mormon couples?”

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

The Romney upset wasn’t the only curveball delegates threw Saturday. Third District Rep. John Curtis was forced into a primary with former state Rep. Chris Herrod, the same opponent Curtis soundly beat in a primary to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz last year.

Both upsets could provide more ammunition to opponents of the convention system. If Romney goes on to crush Kennedy and Curtis once again beats Herrod, then the criticism that delegates are out-of-touch and don’t represent mainstream Republicans becomes even more valid.

That’s a discussion for another day, perhaps.

If the folks at Count My Vote want to convince people that political conventions are a rotten way to choose candidates, they really just need to show people the circus around the rest of Saturday’s marathon affair, with the fighting and sniping, the bizarre speeches and technical glitches put on by a deeply dysfunctional party.

After more than 40 years of attending Utah Republican conventions, Sen. Orrin Hatch took the stage at his last convention as an officeholder to a video that included Ronald Reagan and President Donald Trump praising his grit. One woman shouted: “Thank you for retiring!”

He left to the roar of confetti cannons that showered thousands of small American flags on the media table, covering reporters.

The next three hours were chaos. First, there were problems with the electronic voting system. At one point, more than 200 people lined up at the help desk trying to get their clickers working.

A practice vote testing the clickers asked delegates which of the state’s five national parks was their favorite. (Zion National Park won that vote and goes to a primary with Bears Ears National Monument, which gathered signatures.)

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Convention chairwoman Enid Greene Mickelsen tries to maintain order with the raucous crowd at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018 at the Maverik Center.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Bateman, Entrata, CEO speaks in the opening session to over 14,000 at the 2018 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Lake Convention Center Thursday Jan. 18.

Parliamentarian Enid Mickelsen sparred for two hours with angry delegates over the agenda and bylaws. Delegates shouted from the seats demanding to be recognized. Mickelsen directed them to the microphones. “Are you a slow learner?” she sniped when they persisted. It went on like that. And on. And on. And then it went nowhere.

Behind the scenes, Dave Bateman, who has bankrolled Keep My Voice and the legal battle to try to get rid of signature gathering and had accused party leaders of corruption, texted directions to his backers.

“Don’t be duped by the chair and Count My Vote supporters’ hostile takeover attempt of the convention,” Bateman wrote, urging them to vote to not consider any of the bylaw changes — which is what they did after more than two hours.

While I was still fishing flag confetti out of my underpants, Hatch tweeted a picture of him eating a burger at In-N-Out Burger. He had the good sense to leave the convention early.

“I’ve been coming to these conventions since Orrin Hatch ran against Frank Moss” in 1976, one Salt Lake County delegate told the gathering, urging people to get along. “I have never in all the years I’ve been coming to these conventions seen the Utah GOP in such turmoil.”

By 3 p.m., Old Glory had seen enough. One end of the giant American flag behind the podium broke loose and about a third of it slumped downward.

It stayed that way through another four hours of inconsistent and at times bizarre candidate speeches: Brian Jenkins, appealing to delegates’ better angels while dressed as Abraham Lincoln; Stoney Fonua sharing his philosophy of love everyone and never hurt a woman; and Loy Brunson, espousing his view that the Second Amendment requires the government to purchase military-grade weapons for citizens and train them how to use them.

Perhaps the saddest sight of the entire convention was the inoperative beer stand in the hallway. I could have used a drink by that time. Or five. I doubt I was alone.