Former Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman’s campaign to regain the governor’s office got some very bad news on Thursday when Utah Policy reported that over half of the signatures he’d submitted had been rejected by Utah election authorities. Huntsman has until April 13 (Update: This post initially had the wrong date) to turn in roughly another 11,500 valid petitions, but as we’ll discuss, it’s going to be difficult for him to collect these many signatures this quickly. If he fails, Huntsman can still make the June GOP primary ballot if he wins enough support at the April 25 party convention, but this process also poses plenty of challenges for the former governor.
As we’ve written before, Utah allows candidates for governor or for Congress to reach the primary ballot either by turning in the requisite number of signatures or by competing at their party convention, though Huntsman is one of a few candidates who is trying both methods. Republican candidates for governor need to turn in 28,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, and Huntsman turned in a total of 36,000 petitions. However, election authorities ruled that close to 20,000 of his signatures weren’t acceptable, with about 13,000 of those petitions coming from people who weren’t registered Republicans or registered to vote at all.
Huntsman has about two weeks to collect another 11,500 valid petitions, though as he’s already learned the hard way, he’s going to need a lot more because many signatures invariably will be rejected. Indeed, none other than Mitt Romney had to deal with this problem when he successfully ran for the Senate in 2018. Romney turned in 80,000 petitions, but his campaign wasn’t sure that this would even be enough; an unnamed source told Utah Policy, “When we turned those 80,000 signatures in, I thought there was a chance we didn’t make it. We were praying we would get 30% validated.” Romney ultimately got about 60% of his petitions accepted, but he had significantly more time to collect them than Huntsman has now.
The coronavirus also makes signature gathering extra difficult. “We are collecting signatures from people who have either reached out to us and sought the opportunity to sign or that have responded to an offer from us to come and collect a signature,” Huntsman’s campaign emailed Utah Policy, “We put the packet by the door, knock, step back six feet, they answer and sign with their own pen then go back inside.” Huntsman did get a little good news on Thursday, though, when retiring Gov. Gary Herbert allowed voters who wanted to fill out a petition to download and sign a form that they could then either mail or email to the campaign.
However, another problem for Huntsman is that his pool of eligible GOP voters has shrunk. State law says that, if a voter signs petitions for multiple contenders seeking the same office, it only counts in favor of the first candidate to turn in their signatures (another 2,400 of Huntsman’s petitions were rejected because the voter had already been counted for one of his rivals). The state has verified that both Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former state party chair Thomas Wright have submitted enough signatures to make the ballot, so anyone who signed for them can’t help Huntsman.
The good news for Huntsman is, if the petition route fails, he can still get to the primary by competing at the April 25 party convention. (This gathering will be a virtual event this year because of the coronavirus.) State GOP rules say that, in races with three or more contenders, the convention may opt to either use multiple ballots or preference voting to gradually eliminate candidates from consideration. If one contender ends up taking more than 60% of the delegate vote, they will be the only candidate to reach the primary ballot. If, however, no one hits this threshold, then the two competitors left standing will advance to the primary. (Utah Democrats' rules work the same way.)
Indeed, Huntsman does have experience at these types of gatherings. When he first ran for governor in 2004, Huntsman took first place at the party convention with 51% of the vote on the final ballot, and he went on to decisively win both the primary and the general election. (Until the legislature changed the law in 2014, Utah candidates could only reach the primary by taking enough support at their party convention, and Gov. Olene Walker’s campaign ended after she took just fourth place that year.)
The problem for Huntsman, though, is that a lot has changed since 2004, and Republican conventions have become even more dominated by activists who are far more ideologically extreme and anti-establishment than their party's electorate at large.
Unsurprisingly, establishment candidates haven’t fared well in recent Utah gatherings: Herbert lost 55-44 in his 2016 re-election bid to conservative businessman Jonathan Johnson, while state Rep. Mike Kennedy pulled off a 51-49 convention upset two years later against none other than Romney. (Both Herbert and Romney decisively won their primaries months later.) These delegates may be particularly eager to vote down Huntsman, who ran for president in 2012 as a moderate, though his service as Trump’s ambassador to Russia could sate them a little.
Huntsman will also be competing against several other Republicans who may be much more appealing to party delegates. Businessman Jeff Burningham, former state House Speaker Greg Hughes, and Salt Lake County Council chair Aimee Winder Newton are depending on the convention to advance, while Cox and Wright will also be taking part in the gathering. All of this means that the party convention could be a very unpredictable event, so Huntsman will really need to hope that he can collect enough petitions to render the delegates’ judgment on him meaningless.
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