At Saturday’s Utah Republican Convention, Mitt Romney’s troops wooed delegates with free T-shirts, Twinkies and bottled water. State Rep. Mike Kennedy handed out stones — to help depict his run as a David vs. Goliath contest.
In his speech to delegates, Kennedy said the giant he wants to knock down to size is Washington, D.C. “I have a stone ready to be thrown at those who seek to oppress us” there, he said to loud cheers.
Delegates who liked the imagery of charging into battle with a David helped Kennedy finish first among delegates in the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, 51 percent to 49 percent.
So the little-known state representative forced the famous former GOP presidential nominee into a primary — even though Romney outspent him $526,516 to $31,500. (It may also revive bad memories for Romney, because the last time he lost a U.S. Senate race was also to a Kennedy, albeit a far more famous one: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994.)
Most Utah voters likely still know little about Mike Kennedy, so following is a quick primer on his background and stands as the focus now shifts to the June 26 primary.
The Tribune requested an interview Monday, but a campaign spokesman said Kennedy’s busy schedule prevented that.
Sweeping up at convention
Kennedy, a state representative from Alpine for the past six years, is a doctor. After he started practicing, he also went to law school at Brigham Young University — and became a lawyer, too, and says he does some legal counseling.
He told convention delegates, “As a physician, I’m a trained listener. As an attorney, I’m a trained advocate. And as a legislator, I’ve learned how working together we can solve even our biggest problems.”
Kennedy improvised to demonstrate to delegates that he listens and acts — and showed he knows how to sweep up at a convention, literally and figuratively.
It came during a lull in action when Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson jokingly asked delegates — who had been there for 11 hours already — to stay and help clean up afterward.
Kennedy quickly found a broom and started sweeping up confetti on the convention floor as his supporters went wild with applause. (Anderson later asked over the public address system that volunteers please leave the cleanup to Maverik Center employees.)
His broom handling came not long after Kennedy told the crowd, “As a father of eight wonderful children, I believe in leading by example. I will set the kind of example that is the core of our Utah values since the days of our pioneers: honesty, hard work, compassion for the weak among us.”
He also keyed in on how tired delegates were after a long day before their final vote, and as he started his final-round speech.
“I’m tired,” he said bringing sympathetic hoots and applause. “You know what I’m really tired of? I’m tired of business as usual in Washington, D.C. If you want change, you need to vote for change. If you want business as usual, you’ve got an option.”
But perhaps the biggest reason Kennedy finished first is he chose to rely only on the caucus-convention system to reach the primary, while Romney also collected signatures to ensure he would reach the primary no matter what happened at the convention.
Conservative delegates hate a 2014 law that allows signature gathering as a path to the ballot because it reduces their power. They have pushed lawsuits challenging it, and tend to punish candidates who use it.
For example, they flogged Gov. Gary Herbert into a second-place finish two years ago after he had gathered signatures, and eliminated now-Rep. John Curtis in early rounds of voting in a special election last year when he collected them. Herbert and Curtis later easily won their primaries and the general election. (Curtis last weekend was once again forced into a primary with the same GOP rival as before — former Rep. Chris Herrod.)
Kennedy started his convention speech telling delegates, “Thank you especially for your support of our caucus system, the system I have always used and will always only use.”
Anderson, the state party chairman, said in an interview Monday that many delegates are basing votes “on the methods candidates use to campaign, rather than their policies.” He said until that changes, results of conventions and primaries may differ.
Romney also said he also feels his second-place finish came largely because he collected signatures — but said he was following the example of other politicians, including Sen. Mike Lee and Herbert, and said signing up 52,000 Utahns to support him will help as he heads into the primary.
Guns and schools
Most of the legislation passed by Kennedy during his six years in the Legislature has related to health care — from administration of anesthesia to rules for mental health practitioners and Medicaid management. But he received bigger headlines this year by diving into the issue of mass shootings at schools.
After a February school shooting in Florida, Kennedy led efforts to create a state commission on school safety, made up of members of Utah’s law enforcement, education, health care and gun rights communities.
That created some concern among conservative delegates. In one delegate meeting attended by The Tribune, a few delegates asked him if that commission might weaken their gun rights.
Kennedy responded that “I don’t know how to solve school safety,” so he figured the best way to approach it would be to assemble people who might — and to have wide-ranging discussion and ideas. He noted that gun-rights groups would be part of the debate. “We come up with solutions by listening to each other,” he said.
He stressed to the convention on Saturday, “I don’t just talk about support for the Second Amendment, I vote in favor of the Second Amendment.” He has stressed he has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
He also met with and had his photo taken with members of the Utah Gun Exchange, an aggressive pro-firearms group.
Kennedy takes a conservative position on most issues.
As a doctor, he passed out flyers at the convention with a prescription pad showing “Mike’s prescription for Washington.”
At the top of the list is to “repeal Obamacare.” He told delegates, “I oppose Obamacare and any scheme that puts the government between doctor and patient.”
Four years ago, Kennedy made national headlines when, during a legislative task force meeting, he said, “Sometimes access to health care can be damaging and dangerous. … I’ve heard from National Institutes of Health and otherwise that we’re killing up to a million, a million and a half people every year in our hospitals. And it’s access to hospitals that’s killing those people.”
He also wants to cut spending, balance budgets and reduce the federal debt.
“I think our debt is the most significant risk to our country’s future,” he said. “I strongly oppose continuing resolutions of pork-filled omnibus bills created by politicians who refuse to make tough decisions. I live on a budget. You live on a budget. Our government should live on a budget.”
On immigration, he said, “I support President Trump in doing what’s necessary to protect our borders and enforce our laws.”
He said if elected to the U.S. Senate, he would push to confirm judges such as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “who interpret our constitution based on the original and inspired intent of our founders.”
He touts that as a Utah legislator, he voted this year for an unsuccessful bill that would have prohibited abortions of fetuses because they have Down syndrome, voted for resolutions to rescind Bears Ears National Monument, and voted for free-market competition in a bill to allow Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers.