SANDY — Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson used Saturday's state GOP convention to formally announce he is running for governor against fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
Because Johnson contributed $25,000 to the party through the new Chairman's Circle program, he was allowed to address the more than 2,000 delegates gathered at the South Towne Expo Center.
The most pressing business for the delegates to the annual convention was a vote on changes to the party's constitution deemed necessary to ensure there will be Republicans on the ballot in 2016.
Their approval allows the party to comply with SB54, a controversial law that limits the power of delegates to nominate candidates by creating an alternative way to earn a place on the primary election ballot, gathering voter signatures.
The law passed by the 2014 Legislature had divided the party, with Utah GOP Chairman James Evans initially saying there was little chance it could be done in time for the upcoming election.
But after the party lost its bid for a preliminary injunction against the law earlier this year, Republicans have moved toward compliance. While there was debate on the issue Saturday, the four amendments were approved with a single vote.
The support came after assurances from Evans the party will continue its legal battle to restore the strength of the state's unique caucus and convention system, altered as a compromise with backers of the Count My Vote initiative.
And nearly 1,000 delegates had already participated in a conference call earlier this week to discuss the details of registering with the state as what's known as a qualified political party, still able to advance candidates.
What wasn't on the convention agenda was Johnson's announcement.
"I am ready to lead the state of Utah. I'm making it official I want to be Utah's next governor," Johnson said after taking several jabs at the governor, including the timing of his order late Friday stopping Utah from distributing federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
"Leadership isn't just cheerleading or high performance ratings. Leadership isn't taking action the day before facing Republican delegates on something we should have taken action on weeks or months or years ago," Johnson said.
Herbert, who took office six years ago and has been reelected twice, did not talk about the 2016 race in his convention speech. Later, the governor told reporters this is a "year to govern. Campaigning is a 2016 issue."
He said his action against Planned Parenthood, made public late Friday afternoon, was "the right thing to do based on the culture of Utah, based on what’s taken place on the national level."
The governor said he didn't tell delegates about it because he was not "trying to make (Planned Parenthood) into some kind of a political football. Others may be trying to but not me."
Points he did make to delegates included the strength of the state's economy, the need for more state control and his support for the policies of former President Ronald Reagan.
"I'm a Reagan Republican," the governor said to applause. "As far as I'm concerned, you could do away with the federal Department of Education."
Herbert was also listed among those contributing $25,000 to the party, as was Utah's two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee; Rick Votaw, who later lost his race for state party vice chairman; and Energy Solutions.
Elected officials are always able to speak at party conventions. Challengers usually don't get that opportunity until an election year. But the party's new fundraising program changed that Saturday.
"Speaking at the convention was a recognition. We gave 10 minutes if they wanted," Evans said, noting Energy Solutions chose to have a video shown. "I don't have any opinion on how someone uses their speaking time."
He said the party didn't know what Johnson planned to do with the time he was alloted. The party chairman said Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, paid the party $10,000 to make a similar announcement in 2013 after losing her first race for Congress.
But Love spokesman Richard Piatt said that while she raised money for the party and requested time at the convention to tell delegates she was running again, "it wasn't a price of admission situation."
Johnson said he paid the same amount as the governor and other donors in the new program.
"I think it sends a message that I'm prepared to do what it takes to win the nomination of the Republican Party and become Utah's next governor," he said, noting he and Overstock.com have been longtime financial supporters of the GOP.
Earlier this year, Johnson signaled his seriousness about running by hiring a top campaign strategist, former state Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen, who ran Love's successful 2014 race.
He said Herbert hasn't been tough enough on issues including public lands and clean air. Johnson said he would be willing to launch a legal fight with the federal government over control of public lands and impose fuel standards to clear the air.
The governor said the state is engaged on the public lands issue on many fronts, such as support for what he called an "ambitious" initiative being proposed by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
"At the same time, I want to make sure we don't have a national monument dropped in our laps here by the president, so that's part of the equation, too," Herbert told reporters.
On Johnson's questioning his efforts on clean air, the governor said anyone running for office will try "to find some issue to make themselves relevant....I expect that's what he's doing."
Hatch, who was honored at the convention, told reporters he was endorsing the governor's reelection, citing Herbert's position as new head of the National Governors Association as well as his work on behalf of Utah.
"No other state can make the claims we can," the senator said. "So I think you stick with a winner."
Delegates also elected party leaders Saturday. Evans was unopposed and Phill Wright was chosen the new state party vice chairman; Bryce Christensen, the new state party secretary; and Abram Young, the new state party treasurer.