SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert won another two years as governor Tuesday, overcoming a hard-hitting challenge from Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
Final unofficial results had Herbert with 64 percent of the vote to Corroon's 32 percent.
The governor walked through the GOP gathering at the Salt Lake Hilton before Corroon conceded the race. Corroon stayed in his suite at the Democrats' Election Night headquarters, the downtown Marriott, most of the evening. That's unusual behavior for a candidate whose race was called by pollsters as soon as the polls closed at 8 p.m., said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"Obviously, it's a tough-fought battle," Jowers said of the race. He said Corroon's negative TV commercials worked against him, especially since they did not make an effective case for electing him.
In his victory speech to the crowd, Herbert did make reference to his own, positive campaign, saying he is proud of the ads he aired.
"This has been a very hard-fought and extremely challenging campaign," he said, but he and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell "never took their eye off the ball" and "honored their commitment to run a positive campaign."
The governor said Utahns want to hear solutions to the state's challenges, stopping short of criticizing Corroon for running a negative campaign.
"I think the people of Utah want to talk about issues," Herbert said. "And we brought to them an issue-oriented campaign. We recognized there are challenges out there but we are addressing those challenges. That's resonating with the people of Utah and that's why we're seeing the support."
Corroon said he called the governor to concede the race about 9:45 p.m. "He was very gracious and we both committed to work together," Corroon said.
He said the only regret he had about the way he ran his campaign was not spending more time meeting with voters throughout the state.
"We sort of knew where it was headed, but at the end of the day, we put up a good strong fight. I enjoyed every minute of it," he said. Corroon declined to say whether he was interested in making another run for governor in two years. "I do love public service and we'll see what the future brings," he said.
Herbert was elected twice as lieutenant governor, then took over the state's top spot in August 2009 when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Under a recent amendment to the Utah Constitution, a special gubernatorial election had to be held to fill the remaining two years of Huntsman's term. The next gubernatorial election will be in 2012.
Like most Utah political battles this year, the governor's race initially was overshadowed by the ouster of U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, at the state GOP convention, and the heated GOP primary battle won by Mike Lee.
Corroon had tried to focus attention on his campaign early on by choosing Republican Rep. Sheryl Allen as his running mate and releasing a series of position papers on various issues. His plan for education sparked a brief controversy when Corroon said the governor was playing the "religion card" in Mormon-dominated Utah by taking issue with Corroon sending his children to a private, Catholic school.
But the race didn't really take off until early September, after Corroon jumped on news reports raising questions about whether campaign contributions to the governor influenced the award of state contracts.
Corroon began airing what have been described as some of the state's most negative campaign commercials and soon saw his poll numbers drop. Herbert's campaign reportedly readied and tested some negative ads against Corroon, but never aired them.
The governor saw his standing in the polls climb steadily, especially after Corroon compared his fundraising activities to those of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich during one of their last debates.
In the end, despite spending nearly as much as Herbert and traveling thousands of miles by bus around the state, Corroon appeared to make little headway with the independent and moderate GOP voters a Democrat needs to win statewide.
State GOP Chairman Dave Hansen said voters rejected Corroon's negative message. "Gary Herbert is a nice guy. Everybody likes Gary Herbert," he said.
What he expected Corroon to do was to use the race to introduce himself to voters outside the Wasatch Front to ready himself for another run in two years.
Instead, Hansen said Corroon faces the embarrassment of being associated with the type of campaign that "does not work in Utah." To run again, Hansen said Corroon will need to apologize to voters.
Political observers agree the race may be repeated again in two years.
Herbert is already expected to seek re-election, although there's some suggestion he may face a challenge from members of his own party. He fended off GOP opponents this time by amassing $1 million at his first Governor's Gala soon after taking office.
And while Corroon has not committed to another run for governor, he is still seen as his party's best hope of recapturing the office. The last time a Democrat was elected governor in Utah was when the late Scott Matheson won a second term in 1980.
Both likely will have to start raising money soon for another bid for the Governor's Mansion. This race cost the two candidates well over $4.5 million from their campaign and political action committee accounts.