SALT LAKE CITY — Gubernatorial candidate and Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham said he didn't plan on backing fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert after being eliminated in the first round of voting at the party's state convention.
"That was quite spontaneous," Kirkham said of his decision Saturday to join Herbert on the convention stage — a move seen as helping the governor avoid a primary against former state lawmaker Morgan Philpot.
Both Kirkham and Philpot have been harsh critics of the governor even before challenging him. A year ago, Kirkham branded Herbert as "politically weak" and said the state needs a strong leader.
But Kirkham said Monday he considers Herbert a friend. "I mean that. I got to know him on the campaign trail," he said. "I never, ever had a personal dispute with Gary. It's always been policy."
The governor also said he and Kirkham became "good friends" during the campaign. "I think he liked what I stood for and my principles," Herbert said, noting that some Republicans "are a little bit more strident" than he and Kirkham.
The pair is expected to get together in the next week or so to talk about what's next for Kirkham.
Herbert said he expects Kirkham will campaign for him in the general election. Kirkham, who manufactures custom cars, said he'd be willing to join the administration.
"I don't even know what cabinet positions there are," Kirkham said. "If Gary thinks I can help the state, I'm going to help the state. If he doesn’t, that's OK, too."
Kirkham said he made the offer to endorse Herbert backstage moments before the governor appeared onstage Saturday because he felt "it was in the best interest of the state and the people. There were no deals. Nobody talked to anybody. No one was more surprised than Gary."
But Philpot, who was defeated with just under 37 percent of the delegate vote to more than 63 percent for Herbert in the second — and final — round of voting, said he saw the endorsement coming.
"I started to wonder a couple of days out when he wasn't returning my calls," Philpot said. "I was disappointed. I wish he would have talked to me about it."
The fourth-place finisher among the six GOP gubernatorial candidates, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said he wanted to see a primary and is not ready to endorse Herbert.
"I would have preferred it to have gone to a primary just to continue to reinforce issues that I think are important to the state and to me personally," Sumsion said, particularly public lands and budget concerns.
Neither Kirkham, who finished a distant third in the first round of voting, nor Philpot would be specific about the source of the friction between them.
"We politicians aren't always that likable," Philpot acknowledged, adding that he's always liked Kirkham even though the tea party leader became less aggressive toward Herbert as the race wore on.
"I think I attained a higher level of contrast with the governor than David did," Philpot said, but added his own behavior on the campaign trail was never over the top.
"I'm not a rabble-rouser," Kirkham said, adding he got tired of the infighting. "Yelling is not influence."
Since the convention, Kirkham said he's heard from plenty of fellow members of the tea party movement. "Fifty percent think it's really cool and 50 percent see me as this terrible sell-out traitor," he said.
But he had no regrets about his public support for Herbert.
"Heavens, no. I'm grateful I was able to have some small influence on the race. I'd do it all over again," Kirkham said. "My conscience is clear."
Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor, said Kirkham's endorsement is somewhat surprising.
"If you're going to challenge the incumbent governor, you pretty much know you have to make a strong case for that," Burbank said. "This is a rather drastic change in attitude."
But Burbank said it's not clear that there was "any kind of obvious deal" made for Kirkham's support. He said assuming Kirkham believed he had something to gain is "cynical but it's certainly not unprecedented in politics."