Utahns are set to vote in a special congressional election for the first time in nearly a century, a factor strategists in the state cited for what’s expected to be a low-turnout and unpredictable three-candidate Republican primary.
Former state Rep. Chris Herrod, Provo Mayor John Curtis, and investment adviser Tanner Ainge will face off next month during a major vacation month and under an unusual set of circumstances for the eastern 3rd District, which includes the populous suburbs of Salt Lake City as well as remote valleys and national parks.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz represented the heavily Republican district until his surprise retirement last month, and whoever emerges with his party’s nomination will be heavily favored to succeed the former Oversight Committee chair in the November general election.
“Most people in the district don’t even know there’s an election coming up,” said veteran campaign strategist Dave Hansen. “It’s going to end up being about which candidate has the best voter-identification and turnout program.”
Curtis has a strong but surmountable lead in the scant polling available and by far the most money in the race, with $232,000 raised by June 30, thanks in part to a $100,000 personal loan. Herrod, who is widely thought to be Curtis’s main competitor, raised $79,000.
A UtahPolicy.com poll put Ainge, who raised $131,000, including a $40,000 personal contribution, in last place, but it also found that a whopping 49 percent of Republicans are undecided—more than enough voters to flip the race in any direction.
Republicans had two methods for getting on the primary ballot, and both were on very tight deadlines. They could win the vote of more than 1,000 GOP delegates at a district convention or gather signatures—both before Chaffetz had even left office. While Curtis and Ainge took the signature route, Herrod narrowly won the delegate vote in the fifth round of balloting, beating 10 competitors.
Herrod’s convention win doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the district, which is reliably Republican but somewhat less conservative than he is. Curtis, whose city is home to Brigham Young University, tends to draw more support from moderate Republicans.
“Particularly in that 3rd District, the delegates to the state convention tend to be more conservative, more far-right than Republicans in general,” said LaVarr Webb, a Republican consultant who publishes UtahPolicy.com.
There are several factors at play that could affect turnout. The odd timing of the election should lower turnout, while the use of mail-in ballots could give it a boost.
Webb said Curtis has been a “very popular mayor” in the district’s largest city, which gives him a significant advantage.
“At the end of the day, elections are about turning out your people,” Curtis campaign strategist Danny Laub said. “John’s voters will turn out.”
However, “one thing about Herrod’s voters is that they tend to vote,” Hansen said. “They look at this as one of those responsibilities from on high.”
All three campaigns are vying to capture the mass of undecided voters—made all the more difficult by the fact that the candidates have extremely similar platforms. Both Curtis and Herrod are emphasizing their past political experience.
“Having served six years in the Utah legislature, I think I’ve got a decent amount of [name] ID,” Herrod said. Instead, “a primary focus is getting people to know my record.”
The number of undecided voters is “great news for Tanner,” said Peter Watkins, an Ainge campaign spokesman. “At this point it’s a unique opportunity, a unique election.”
But in an unusual twist, Ainge, the son of beloved BYU basketball player-turned-Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, has drawn some ire after his father lured Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward away to Boston. Though the controversy may not be enough to lose the political newcomer any votes, it did perhaps affect the campaigning tools in his arsenal.
“If there had not been the issue of the Celtics stealing our star player, then I think you would have seen his father out here campaigning with him and passing out signed basketballs to everybody that wants them,” Hansen said. “That would have been a big, big thing for him.”
The Ainge campaign disagrees.
“His dad held a fundraiser,” Watkins pointed out, though the fundraiser took place before Hayward’s defection. “His parents live in Massachusetts, so it’s not the most convenient thing.”
So far the race hasn’t garnered much attention, and the campaigns have focused mostly on direct mail. For the next month, TV will play more of a role in raising the candidates’ profiles, which is especially important for the summer timing. All of the campaigns said their strategies weren’t affected much because of the August date or the use of mail-in ballots.
“It’s kind of a wild card to have an election like this,” Herrod said. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”
By Aug. 15, any number of factors could put one of the candidates over the top.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who is a resident of the district, is slated to meet with all three Republican candidates and may endorse before the primary election, he said last week in an interview at the National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island.
“In a three-person race, everybody has a shot,” Hansen said.