Utah GOP convention to cull huge field of governor candidates

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo the Utah governor candidates are pictured. From left, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton, Jon Huntsman, Thomas Wright, Greg Hughes and Spencer Cox pose for a group photo with Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts, center after a debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit convention, at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

For three Republican rivals for governor, their political aspirations will boil down to how well their message translates through patchy audio connections and grainy video chats.

Candidates to replace Gov. Gary Herbert have spent recent weeks exploring new ways of courting party insiders after the global pandemic made it impossible to shake hands or gather around dining room tables. In this weekend’s virtual Republican and Democratic state nominating conventions, the political opponents will find out if all those Zoom calls and digital town halls were enough to propel them forward in the race.

The stakes aren’t as high for three candidates, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright, all of whom have already guaranteed their place on June’s primary ballot by gathering 28,000 valid signatures from Utah voters.

But the convention is make or break for businessman Jeff Burningham, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, whose only shot of appearing on the ballot is by earning support from fellow party members.

[Read more: Election 2020: Utah’s gubernatorial candidates and where they stand on the issues]

At most, two of these convention-only candidates will emerge and go on to the primary, and it’s possible that none will.

Interviewed Thursday, these candidates said it’s tough to tell where they stand going into the weekend.

“We have no idea if we’re going to get out of convention or not,” Winder Newton said. “If I were to put money on this, I would have no idea how to make my wager.”

Predicting the outcome is even harder in the absence of town halls or other gatherings, where candidates might be able to sense momentum building behind their campaigns, Hughes said.

“You work as hard as you can. You find ways to communicate as effectively as you can,” Hughes said. “But of all years, I have less of a feel for how this is going to roll out.”

Electronic voting for the roughly 4,000 Republican Party delegates opened Thursday morning and will run through Saturday evening. Democrats will do all their voting on Saturday. Republicans will be using online voting through the internet voting app Voatz, which has faced questions about possible security issues and privacy problems that could provide the opportunity for hackers to alter, stop or expose an individual user’s vote.

A.G. and congressional races

In addition to the governor’s race, party delegates will be evaluating candidates for Utah attorney general, congressional posts and an array of state legislative positions.

On the Republican side, incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes is going up against two challengers — former Attorney General John Swallow, who resigned in one of the state’s biggest political scandals but is seeking his old job back, and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart faces three main competitors for the 2nd Congressional District seat, while fellow Republican Rep. John Curtis, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, is going up against one in the convention.

President Donald Trump on Thursday tweeted his support for Curtis, Stewart and Reyes.

A dozen GOP candidates are competing over the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by the retiring Rep. Rob Bishop, and another seven are vying to go up against Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in the 4th Congressional District. Republican delegates will also be making decisions in five state Senate contests and five House races.

To clinch a place on the ballot, a candidate must either win more than 60% of the convention delegate vote or rank as one of the top two finishers.

In the Democratic convention, there is one candidate in the attorney general’s race, two for the 1st Congressional District, three for the 2nd Congressional District and three in the 3rd Congressional District. McAdams is up against one Democratic challenger in the 4th District.

Six candidates for governor are competing for the Democratic nomination: Chris Peterson, Zachary Moses, Neil Hansen, Nikki Pino, Archie Williams III and Ryan Jackson. None gathered signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Campaigning vs. coronavirus

While COVID-19 has transformed the way the party members and political hopefuls are approaching this year’s convention, it also created an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate their leadership skills and adaptability, said Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

“Every day as an elected official, you’re pretty much presented with problems, and every one of these candidates is faced with a problem that none of them actually anticipated,” Brown said. “We sort of get this front row seat to watch how they solve a real-life problem. ... Delegates are watching and taking notes.”

Winder Newton said she’s been calling party delegates, sending out mailers and hosting Zoom meetings (one of which was memorably hijacked by hackers who flooded the meeting with pornographic images and racial slurs). At the end of these virtual meetings, she’s often invited people to stay on the line and get to know her more personally; delegates have asked her and her running mate, State Auditor John Dougall, everything from how they met their spouses to what formative experiences prepared them for public service.

Burningham and Hughes have also turned to social media and remote gatherings to introduce themselves to party delegates ahead of the convention.

Damon Cann, a political science professor with Utah State University, said he’s noticed the gubernatorial candidates are landing on common themes in their pitches to the delegates — focusing on local control over education, commitment to gun rights and management of public lands.

“Background and previous elected office experience tend to be a lot more where you’re seeing the competition and messaging that distinguishes the candidates,” he said.

The political rivals are also highlighting their support for Trump to varying degrees, he noted. Huntsman’s convention video, for instance, notes that he served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Trump. Huntsman says while he worked in the post, he and Trump “forged a strong and respectful relationship, and I know the state will need it.”

In their videos, Wright and Hughes both brag that they were among Trump’s early backers. And Wright and Burningham, neither of whom has held political office, both try to leverage that quality as a point of connection with the real estate mogul-turned-president.

“I bring a fresh perspective that is different than the other career politicians I am running against,” Burningham said. “We have a president who has never run for political office, has done things differently and has been effective in ways we have never seen before.”

Although the convention is do or die for three of the candidates, the remaining Republican competitors also have something to gain by winning over party members, Cann said. Candidates not expected to do as well with these delegates have a particular opportunity to shine, he said.

Since party insiders often gravitate toward more conservative options, a surprisingly strong showing by the more moderate Huntsman and Cox could give them a boost, Cann said. In a prepared statement, Cox said he was disappointed he couldn’t meet with party delegates in person this weekend.

“Their role in our party has never been more important with so many candidates running,” he said.

Wright said the endorsement of fellow Republicans could set him up to take on his higher profile rivals.

“It would help a candidate like me coming out of convention to increase my name ID, to catapult me out of convention,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Wright sought to underscore his party loyalty by pledging that if he wins election, he’d donate half of his annual governor’s gala fundraising haul to the Utah GOP.

For his part, Hughes tried to prove his commitment to the party by banking solely on the convention to qualify for the primary, eschewing the signature-gathering path explored by the other candidates in the race. The former House speaker said he’s not sure if this show of trust will sway the delegates but hopes he’s sent a message.

“Delegates appreciate it that I have laid my fate at the feet of the delegates,” he said. “I am the candidate that decided early on that I was not going to gather a single signature.”

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.