Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Convention battles, SB54 and medical marijuana

The cold, rainy weather has been warmed up a bit by all the hot air emanating from the ruminations, conjectures, blame, accusations, defensive statements and intense electioneering as politicians target the June 28 primary election. We explore all the fun.

Popular incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert squares off against businessman Jonathan Johnson after “losing” the state convention delegate vote 45 percent to 55 percent. How does the convention battle impact the primary election?

Pignanelli: "Political reporters keep searching for political meanings in the tepid events of a convention, but it is essentially a human drama and only that.” — William Greider

Last week provided three great opportunities for Utah politicos to taste mayhem and intrigue: the two conventions and the season opener of "Game of Thrones.”

The Republican convention results are fostering questions and opportunities for the two gubernatorial campaigns. Electioneering veterans are confused by the massive billboard purchase by Herbert when the target audience was only 4,000 delegates. His mistake conceded the advantage of the delegate/convention system wherein candidates can focus on a small universe of readily identifiable voters.

The Johnson campaign shrewdly implemented a brilliant strategy. The convention triumph provides him a needed tool to prevail against the popular Herbert. But his convention tactics may not resonate with most mainstream Republicans. Also, as some Democratic challengers learned, it is impossible to attack Herbert personally because Utahns view him as a decent person.

Nerds like me love the coincidence that this season of "Game of Thrones" runs contemporaneously from the GOP convention through the primary election. This globally admired series offers strategies campaigns need to adopt. (i.e. ruthlessly pivot in response to a changing environment; success depends on the use, not the amount, of resources, etc.) Unfortunately, election laws ban the use of dragons.

Webb: Herbert need not lament the convention loss. After all, the 4,000 delegates are the most conservative element of the Republican Party, and Herbert won 45 percent of their vote. The primary election will be much friendlier territory.

Johnson is a solid candidate, and Herbert will need to run a smart, aggressive campaign. Utahns already know the state is doing great. Now they want to know Herbert’s bold vision for the future, how he’s going to take Utah to the next level.

Johnson must broaden his appeal. Throwing arch-conservative red meat to delegates won’t cut it in the primary. His selection of school-choice champion Robyn Bagley as his lieutenant governor will energize the education community against him. Johnson can’t win as the right-wing/Libertarian, voucher candidate with Cliven Bundy-like attitudes about public lands.

SB54, allowing the gathering of signatures to get on the primary ballot, was definitely under fire at the Republican convention. What happens long-term?

Pignanelli: Congressman Jason Chaffetz is a nationally recognized Republican with real influence. But this articulate conservative, who was birthed by — and supports — the convention system, captured 64 percent of the delegates against unknown opponent Chia-Chi Teng. Any other collection of rational Republicans would have delivered at least 85-90 percent. Politicos believe such outcomes will incentivize future candidates to pursue the saner signature process.

Webb: The party bosses and their Central Committee hate, hate, hate Count My Vote and SB54 because they diminish the monopoly power of the party machine and empower all voters to determine party nominees.

Under Count My Vote, the “little guy” can get on the primary ballot, even against a powerful, well-funded incumbent (case in point: Chia-Chi Teng is in the primary against party powerhouse Jason Chaffetz). Under the old system, some underdogs would have been swept away by delegates and the party machine. Now they’re on the ballot and all Republicans get to determine their fate. Mainstream Republicans can now seek elective office without having to run naked through the delegate gauntlet. The party machine can’t purge those not deemed ideologically pure.

As a longtime supporter of Count My Vote, I was disappointed to see Johnson side with the party machine and attack Herbert because he gathered signatures.

Johnson’s message to delegates essentially was: You have the power. You are the party insiders. You control the system. By gathering signatures, Herbert has signaled he wants to bring more Republicans into the political process. We can’t allow that. You must punish him! You must protect your power because you’re smarter than the rest of the voters.

Johnson’s message worked with 55 percent of the delegates. Now we’ll see if that exclusionary delegate flattery connects with the broader GOP population.

Can Utah Democrats win with their gubernatorial nominee Mike Weinholtz? Will the investigation of his wife’s use of medical marijuana have any impact?

Pignanelli: In prior elections, this revelation of drug use (or a civil disobedience arrest in a human rights protest) would be fatal. But that was the past and the anti-establishment fever gripping both parties makes such controversies meaningless. More importantly, Weinholtz is a decent person and successful businessman. All Utahns, regardless of party preference, should be proud someone of his character and expertise is seeking office.

Webb: The articulate and well-funded Weinholtz will mount a feisty campaign — all for naught. He might even win Salt Lake County, but will get clobbered so badly in Utah and Davis counties that it will be a Republican landslide. A little medical marijuana won’t be a blip.