SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has filed notice that he intends to collect voter signatures for a place on the 2016 Republican primary election ballot, an option available for the first time this year under a law being challenged by the state GOP.
The other Republican in the race, Jonathan Johnson, wasted no time in criticizing the governor's decision. Johnson announced two weeks ago he would forgo gathering signatures and focus only on the traditional caucus and convention process.
"Gov. Herbert has decided to buy his spot on the ballot. He must be concerned Jonathan will beat him at the convention," Johnson's spokeswoman, Sasha Clark, said in a statement issued Monday.
Clark said it is "disheartening for Utahns that Gov. Herbert has opted to pay a company to gather signatures for him and at the same time continues to refuse to debate (Johnson)."
Herbert, who quietly submitted his notice of intent to gather signatures with the lieutenant governor's office Friday, will also participate in the caucus and convention process, said his campaign spokesman, Marty Carpenter.
"The governor will absolutely participate in the caucus-convention process, and he looks forward to meeting with delegates and party activists to discuss his strong record and conservative vision for the next four years," Carpenter said.
Candidates used to have to compete for the support of delegates selected at political party caucuses for the chance to be nominated at a convention. Primary elections were only held when candidates couldn't win enough delegate support.
Now, under the law known as SB54, candidates can bypass that process by collecting voter signatures for a spot on the primary ballot. They can also choose to both gather signatures and participate in the caucus-convention process.
The law passed two years ago by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Herbert was a compromise with supporters of the Count My Vote initiative that would have replaced the process with a direct primary.
The Utah Republican Party has sued Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox twice over SB54, most recently Friday — the same day the governor filed notice. The latest suit comes as the GOP seeks to kick out candidates who only gather signatures.
Last fall, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer struck down part of the law requiring political parties to hold primary elections open to all voters but left the rest of SB54 intact.
Because of that ruling, only registered Republicans can sign petitions for GOP candidates. Herbert will need to collect 28,000 signatures from Republican voters to guarantee his name appears on the primary ballot.
Carpenter said Herbert, who has yet to formally announce he's running for re-election, will soon "begin a broad effort to engage" his supporters. He declined to be more specific about when the campaign will start and whether Herbert will consider debates.
But Carpenter said the effort he's describing will include gathering signatures "as we actively encourage Republican voters to take part in their neighborhood caucus meetings" set for March 22.
Even though candidates have been able to gather signatures since the first of the year, they can't file for office until March 11. So far, the only other gubernatorial candidate who has filed notice to gather signatures is Democrat Vaughn Cook.