Utah GOP primary voters pick mainstream conservatives over far-right convention winners

Some Republicans want to stop the petition route to the ballot.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Badger was one of the candidates that performed better at the Utah Republican Convention than with voters last Tuesday.

The term “RINO” (Republican in name only) is slung around frequently by Republican party die-hards as an insult toward candidates who stray from the party orthodoxy or are deemed not conservative enough on issues. Sen. Mitt Romney is a frequent target of the taunt.

Tuesday’s primary elections highlighted a divide between that activist base and more rank-and-file GOP voters. Several right-wing candidates who appealed to the more MAGA members of the party lost at the polls, often to RINO party apostates.

Consider congressional candidates Andrew Badger and Chris Herrod, who emerged from the state GOP convention with a majority of support from delegates, many of whom branded incumbents Blake Moore and John Curtis as RINOs. Delegate support did not translate into votes at the ballot box, however.

Badger received 59% of the vote at the convention, but his campaign struggled to gain a foothold among primary voters. The same goes for Herrod, who received 54% at the convention. Both got less than 30% in the primary.

Part of those results could be the difficulty of defeating an incumbent member of Congress. But that does not explain a similar phenomenon on Tuesday that saw Republican legislative and school board candidates who earned a spot in the primary courtesy of convention delegates also losing at the polls.

Conventions and petition paths to the ballot

GOP Rep. Ray Ward would be a lame-duck right now if not for SB54, the law which allows candidates to petition their way into the primary. Lyle Mason received 62% of the convention vote, which would have given him the nomination outright in the pre-SB54 world. But Ward submitted the required 1,000 signatures and easily defeated Mason in the primary election by 20 points.

(Courtesy | Jeff Stenquist) Rep. Jeff Stenquist would have been bumped out of the election if it weren't for the signature path to the ballot.

The same goes for Draper’s HD46 primary. Convention favorite Carolyn Phippen would have ended Jeff Stenquist’s legislative career after receiving 63% at the convention. Stenquist gathered signatures and looks to have eked out a win on Tuesday.

Mason and Phippen appealed to delegates because their political leanings were to the right of the incumbents they were trying to unseat. Mason is on the board of the right-wing parents’ rights group Utah Parents United. His daughter, Nicole, is the group’s president. Phippen’s campaign was backed by right-wing favorites former Rep. Kim Coleman and former House Speaker Greg Hughes.

Tuesday’s results should not be seen as rejecting the right-wing MAGA crowd in favor of the status quo. Instead, says BYU political scientist Adam Brown, GOP voters picked mainstream conservatism over a far-right approach.

“A pattern we’ve seen for a long time is far-right candidates get more support at convention than in primaries,” Brown says. “Their intense flavor of politics isn’t palatable to a broader constituency.”

There are plenty of examples to support Brown’s argument. In 2018, state Sen. Mike Kennedy was the winner at the GOP convention, but Romney soundly defeated him by more than 40 points in the primary. In 2016, Jonathan Johnson defeated Gary Herbert at the Republican convention, only to see Herbert race past him for an easy win in the primary.

Brown says that doesn’t mean a moderate Republican will always win a primary election over a more right-wing opponent. But, on average, they do better in a primary than at the convention. He points to Mike Lee’s performance this year. Lee is far more conservative than his opponents Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. Lee got 71% at the convention but is on pace to win the primary with about 62% of the vote.

“That’s still a solid win, but also an indicator that more mainstream primary voters were less enthusiastic about him than the more extreme voters who go to convention,” Brown said.

Voters give mainstream conservatives an edge

On the whole, more mainstream conservative candidates performed much better in Tuesday’s primary.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner only got 50% against Doug Durbano at convention, but secured an easy 20-point win on Tuesday.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson was forced into a primary against Betty Young after receiving just 53% of convention delegates. Primary voters gave the veteran incumbent more than 62% in the primary.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers only received 57% of delegates at the convention, forcing him into a primary against Patrick Larson. Vickers won that matchup easily with more than 70% on Tuesday.

Ronald Mortensen defeated incumbent Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard at the Davis County convention with 57% of the vote, advancing him to the primary election. He could only muster 35% in Tuesday’s primary election.

Utah County Republican delegates sent Brandon Beckham to the primary ballot against Sen. Keith Grover with 47% of the vote, even though Beckham is facing a felony forcible sexual assault charge. On Tuesday, Grover reeled in nearly 70% support.

It was the same story in the pair of primary elections for the state school board. Kim Del Grosso, the far-right candidate who had earned the endorsement of Sen. Mike Lee, won the support of 76% of delegates at convention but lost the primary election to Cindy Davis. She conceded the race on Thursday. In the other primary, Melanie Mortensen won the convention vote with 56% over Leann Wood, but Wood held a 1,200 vote lead after Tuesday’s election.

The effort to end the signature route

Republican Party activists have tried dismantling SB54 almost from the moment lawmakers approved it in 2014. Expect the calls to ditch the signature route to the ballot to grow even louder after so many candidates who won the favor of delegates failed to get through the primary election.

Among those calling for the Utah Legislature to repeal SB54 is Salt Lake County GOP Chair Chris Null.

“We call ourselves Republicans because government works best when our elected officials represent the people. We elect delegates from among our neighbors who then vet the candidates. SB54 skips the vetting process in favor of signature gathering,” Null said. “The convention system will result in a candidate representing our principles while SB54 will produce a candidate who can buy signatures, literally buying a place on the ballot.”

It’s not clear there’s enough support in the Republican-dominated legislature to do away with the signature-gathering route to the ballot. Gov. Spencer Cox says he considers the issue resolved.

“We’ve had these fights over and over again now for seven or eight years. It feels like an eternity,” Cox said during a recent news conference. “The Legislature has shown over and over again they’re not willing to move on that, and neither am I.”

Cox added he would not be likely to support a bill to repeal SB54 if one were to cross his desk.