SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gov. Gary Herbert’s re-election bid suffered a serious setback when he failed to secure the Republican Party’s nomination on Saturday, but he’ll have one more chance to win in a summer primary election.
Jonathan Johnson, chairman of the board at Overstock.com, won 55 percent of the vote in two different rounds of voting at the state party convention in Salt Lake City after attacking Herbert for adopting Common Core and for his reluctance to sue the federal government for control of public lands.
“That’s a significant victory,” Johnson told reporters afterward. “Nine months ago, when we started this, I don’t think anyone gave me a chance.”
But Johnson must win again in the June primary because he didn’t earn 60 percent to win the party convention outright. Even if that had happened, Herbert secured himself a place on the primary ballot by gathering signatures under a new method that allows candidates to bypass the convention.
The winner will face Democrat Michael Weinholtz, a former staffing company executive who scored a resounding victory in his party’s convention with 80 percent of the vote after telling delegates he’ll fight for medical marijuana and revealing his wife is being investigated for pot possession.
Thousands of delegates packed exhibition halls in Salt Lake City for the party conventions — a key step in Utah’s nomination process that in most years has resolved Republican and Democratic contests before a primary is needed.
But that won’t be the case in this year’s highest-profile race — the GOP governor’s contest. The June 28 primary now looms as a high-stakes showdown that will determine if Herbert will serve another term.
Herbert said after the results Saturday that he doesn’t feel betrayed by the 4,000 state Republican delegates who favored Johnson. The governor said he believes his record leading Utah and his message will resonate better with the broader base of about 600,000 GOP voters who will head to the polls this summer.
Herbert delivered a fiery defense of his record before voting began at the convention — saying graduation rates and Utah’s economy have improved since he took office in 2009. Hebert repeatedly jabbed his fingers in the air as he hit his points, proclaiming at a shout that he had a good record and would stand by it.
After a first round of balloting eliminated two lesser-known GOP candidates, Herbert appeared on stage again but had Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speak on his behalf.
“Gary Herbert doesn’t need this, but we desperately need Gary Herbert,” Cox said. “I would run through a wall for this man.”
Johnson hammered Herbert for Utah’s adoption of the Common Core educational standards, something he said he’d roll back if elected.
“We should not force local school districts into a one-size-fits-all program,” Johnson said. “Parents bear the primary responsibility of educating their children.”
He also criticized Herbert for using a new method that allows candidates to bypass the convention by collecting signatures to get on the primary ballot, calling it a betrayal of loyal party delegates and the GOP convention system. The new wrinkle, which adds to Utah’s already complex nomination process, was designed to increase voter participation.
In other contested races, Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop easily defeated a lesser-known opponent. U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz thumped relatively unknown challenger Chia-Chi Teng at the convention, but he still faces a primary because Teng gathered signatures to compete in the primary.
The rest of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation ran unopposed: Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart and Mia Love.
The buzz at the Democratic convention surrounded Weinholtz’s admission that his wife is under investigation for marijuana. He drew loud applause when he said her story puts yet another face on a problem that is forcing people to choose between getting pain relief and breaking the law.
Weinholtz said his wife hasn’t been arrested, but declined to say anything else about the case. She uses it to relieve pain caused by arthritis and nerve damage, he said. He scoffed at speculation it was an election stunt, but recognized it likely helped his cause with Democratic voters.
“The need for medical cannabis touches everyone: Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, middle class, LDS and non-LDS,” Weinholtz said, using an acronym for the Mormon church.
His opponent, medical company CEO Vaughn Cook, didn’t touch on medical marijuana in his address to delegates. He instead touted himself as the candidate most electable in a general election.
The eventual Republican nominee will likely be favored in November because conservative Utah has not elected a Democratic governor since 1980.
About 4,000 delegates were at the GOP convention and 2,500 at the Democratic convention. Both events took place inside the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Associated Press writer Hallie Golden contributed to this story.