SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said finishing behind Jonathan Johnson at the GOP state convention in April ended up helping him win big against the Overstock.com chairman in Tuesday's primary election.
"I think it motivated us. It motivated a lot of other Republicans, too, that like our message, liked our track record," Herbert said after voters gave him a 72 percent to 28 percent victory over Johnson with nearly 230,000 ballots counted.
That was a far larger margin than Johnson's success with several thousand Republican delegates at the state convention, where 55 percent said they wanted him to be the party's nominee, compared to 45 percent for the governor.
Johnson, however, was unable to make that same connection with the hundreds of thousands of Republican voters in the state. His campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said they decided they weren't ready to replace the incumbent nominee.
"It's kind of a judgement on the person in office. When the economy is good and people have jobs, and things are going well, they're very hesitant to change. I think we saw that last night," Hansen said Wednesday.
He said Johnson tried to make the case to voters by emphasizing their differences on issues like Common Core, although Herbert dropped his long-held support for the controversial education standards at the convention.
Johnson's campaign also tried to stir outrage over a secretly recorded meeting the governor held with lobbyists just after the convention vote, where he called himself "Available Jones," a comic strip character willing to do anything for a price.
"It wasn't enough to make them say, 'Okay, it's time to have somebody new.' It was, 'Everything's fine,'" Hansen said. "They didn't feel like, 'Oh, my gosh, that offends me enough that I'm willing to throw out the guy that was involved."
The governor said Utahns turned out for him because they care about what he has been able to accomplish since taking office in 2009 as well as his goals for the future, not the questions raised by Johnson about his ties to lobbyists.
"I appreciate the people of Utah more than ever before as a people who say, 'We want a positive message.' We don't want to be like the national political scene and the shenanigans that go on there," Herbert said.
Democratic candidate for governor Mike Weinholtz said Tuesday's results just reinforced how tough it's going to be to take on a well-known and well-liked incumbent.
"I sympathize with Jonathan Johnson as someone who is also running for the first time," he said. "It's always difficult for an unknown to get name recognition in a short period of time and I think that's one of the things that contributed to the size of that margin."
Weinholtz, who has already loaned his campaign $1 million and expects to put more of his own money in the race, said he plans to start running commercials this summer introducing himself and his agenda to voters.
And the healthcare executive said he has no plans to cross what he called the "fine line" into negative campaigning, even when his message shifts to challenging the governor's record.
Pundits say what may have damaged Johnson most was waiting several weeks after his convention win to reach out to voters statewide via TV commercials, and then using the airwaves to go after the governor rather than sell himself.
"The biggest thing is, he didn't get started early," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said. "If you're going to get that message out, you've got to repeat it, repeat it and repeat it."
UtahPolicy.com publisher LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, said the delay cost Johnson the momentum he'd gained from the state convention and the opportunity to tell voters who he was.
"I think that really hurt them. They immediately went negative. He never really introduced himself to Utah votes. I think that was a strategic mistake," Webb said, especially since the governor was already airing upbeat commercials.
Hansen said that decision was made because of money. Even though Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne ended up giving Johnson's campaign and political action committee some $900,000, Hansen said it would have helped to have it sooner.
"I feel like we did what we could with the resources we had," he said. The fact that the election was largely conducted by mail in 20 of 29 counties didn't help, either, Hansen said, because most voters cast their ballots well before Tuesday.
"We had a great campaign. We had a great candidate. All things considered, it was probably never in the cards to have won it when you look back at it," Hansen said. "At the same time, you never go into the campaign think that."