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The governor’s race has taken a backseat, but Utah’s party conventions offer plenty of intrigue

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. “The Utah governor’s race has taken a back seat to the COVID-19 crisis, but with first-ever online state conventions on Saturday, the contest is starting to heat up,” Pignanelli and Webb write.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Utah governor’s race has taken a back seat to the COVID-19 crisis, but with first-ever online state conventions on Saturday, the contest is starting to heat up. We take a look.

Three GOP candidates — Thomas Wright, Spencer Cox and Jon Huntsman — have qualified for the primary election ballot by gathering signatures. Who is likely to join them on the ballot by winning in Saturday’s GOP convention?

Pignanelli: “The new technologies disrupt political pomp and glamour and engage people in an unpolished and unpredictable give-and-take … while giving citizens access to a surprising depth of raw information.” — Zephyr Teachout

During the pandemic downtime many Utahns are bingeing all the interesting programming on television and streaming services. But next Saturday, they don’t have to revert to “Game of Thrones,” “The Crown,” “Tiger King,” “Billions,” etc. for entertainment. The results of maneuvering, strategy and political warfare (without bloodshed) will be on display at the Utah Republican State Convention.

Normally, some politicos suggest candidates with the highest name identification would succeed. Others could claim delegates prefer contenders perceived more conservative and who ignored the signature process. But the usual dynamics of a convention will be missing (i.e. personal contact, speeches, instantaneous momentum, etc.) and any conjectures are difficult.

All the major gubernatorial candidates — and their running mates — possess a unique attraction to the delegates encompassing ideology, geography or positive reputation.

Much like your favorite cable/streaming program, expect a riveting process. Get the bingeing popcorn ready.

Webb: This convention is going to be fascinating — and meaningful. It will be a real test of a candidate’s organizational skills and creativity to appeal to delegates without in-person contact. The candidate(s) who emerge will get some significant publicity and a nice boost. Greg Hughes, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton and Jan Garbett MUST come out No. 1 or 2 in the convention or be eliminated.

A case can be made for most of the candidates to do well. Because convention delegates are usually more conservative than general Republican voters, conventional wisdom (no pun intended) is that Hughes, the conservative former House speaker, will be a winner.

But watch out for Wright, a former state GOP chair who was very popular among delegates. Wright was the first to qualify via signature gathering. If he also gets a convention win, voters will take a careful look. His running mate, Congressman Rob Bishop, has always been popular among state delegates.

Cox is a little more moderate, but his running mate, Sen. Deidre Henderson, appeals to conservatives. Huntsman isn’t considered a convention favorite, but remember that he emerged first at the 2004 state convention in a multi-candidate field. Burningham and Winder Newton chose conservative lieutenant governors liked by the delegates (Sen. Dan McCay and State Auditor John Dougall, respectively), but they will struggle. Garbett has no chance.

How many delegates actually participate will be key. A big participation rate could give Huntsman and Cox a fighting chance. But if only hardcore party insiders get involved, the strong conservatives will benefit.

Losing in convention wouldn’t be fatal for Cox or Huntsman. Gov. Gary Herbert and Congressman John Curtis both lost badly in convention in recent years and went on to crush their more conservative opponents in the primary.

The online GOP convention will use ranked-choice voting. Delegates will rank all candidates in order of preference, with lowest-ranked candidates eliminated in multiple rounds and votes of their supporters being reallocated according to their second choices, etc., until two final candidates survive (or one garners 60% or more). What will be the impact of this voting system?

Pignanelli: This promises the convention will be great entertainment. Because many delegates are more ideological than practical, convention results could be predictable. But the ability to simultaneously vote for second, third, fourth, etc. choices offers delegates to vote for candidates who are attractive for other nonphilosophical reasons. Thus, candidates viewed as too moderate or with limited resources who may not enjoy first place category could now be a vaulted into the primary.

Unexpected and unusual results will play out in the gubernatorial contest … and the congressional races. Again, next Saturday is going to be a real hoot for us political hacks.

Webb: So far, the candidates have all been quite nice to each other, and ranked-choice voting is one reason why. Being a voter’s second or third choice is important, so candidates are playing nice to avoid alienating the supporters of opponents. But the knives will come out before the primary election.

Utah Democrats will also hold their convention on Saturday, and will choose among six gubernatorial candidates. Any potential surprises in this race?

Pignanelli: Law professor and former federal financial services regulator Chris Peterson is leading in the polls. But former lawmaker Neil Hansen is well liked in traditional Democratic circles and northern Utah. He could perform well at the convention.

The number of candidates and the recycling of prior delegates promises surprises in the congressional contests. There is no crystal ball with enough internal magic to predict all the outcomes.

Webb: The Democrats will nominate a lot of sacrificial lambs in the big races and one frontrunner — Congressman Ben McAdams.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.