SALT LAKE CITY — The long list of candidates seeking to replace resigning Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, will be considerably shorter after political party delegates make their picks Saturday.
There will be a Republican primary election on Aug. 15, with at least two and as many as three candidates, but Democrats are expected to advance their party's nominee directly to the general election ballot in November.
While it would be unusual for voters to have more than two choices in a primary, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said this race will be a good test of the recent change in the nomination process known as SB54 to give candidates another path to the ballot.
"I think voters should look at it as we get a choice, and that's a positive thing," the lieutenant governor, whose office oversees elections for the state, said. "I think we'll learn a lot from this election."
Cox said general election ballots routinely offer voters more than just a choice between a Republican or a Democrat, resulting at times in candidates winning with less than a majority of the votes cast.
"Whether you love it or hate it, I think we'll learn something about it this election," he said of the controversial SB54, which allows candidates to bypass the traditional caucus and convention nomination process by collecting voter signatures.
There was plenty of friction between Gov. Gary Herbert and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature over how the special election should be conducted once Chaffetz made it clear earlier this year he was looking at leaving office early.
Utah hasn't faced a congressional vacancy since five-term Utah Republican Elmer Leatherwood died in office in December 1929, and an attempt to come up with a law detailing the special election process failed in the 2017 Legislature.
In the end, the governor decided not to call lawmakers into special session to consider a GOP proposal to let political parties choose their nominees without the signature-gathering option.
Instead, the process follows a traditional election under SB54, which took effect last year and allows for a primary election on Aug. 15, the same day municipalities will hold primaries, with the final decision made in the Nov. 7 general election.
Although there have been rumblings there could be some sort of legal challenge to the election, Cox said his office is "very confident" in the process after consulting with state and federal officials, including the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Of course, there can always be a legal challenge. We get legal challenges every election. But we don't think there is any legal basis for any type of challenge," he said. Ballots won't be certified or mailed out until Chaffetz steps down June 30.
So far, two Republicans have already qualified for a place on the primary ballot by gathering the required 7,000 verified signatures of voters in the congressional district, Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge and Provo Mayor John Curtis.
A total of 11 Republicans — including Curtis, who chose both paths to the ballot — will compete for the Republican Party's nomination at a special convention of GOP District 3 delegates being held Saturday at Timpview High School in Provo.
Democratic delegates from the district that includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, along with Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties, will also name a nominee Saturday, during their state convention at Weber State University.
Unlike the GOP, Democrats have just three candidates to choose from: Cottonwood Heights physician Kathie Allen, Cottonwood Heights mental health worker Ben Franks and Monticello biologist Carl Ingwell.
Because no Democrats submitted voter signatures, the Democrat nominated at the party's convention will go directly to the general election ballot. Allen, who had raised more than $560,000 by the end of March, is widely seen as the front-runner.
The Republican convention race includes two state senators, Margaret Dayton from Orem and Deidre Henderson from Spanish Fork; a state House member, Brad Daw from Orem; and a former state lawmaker, Chris Herrod from Provo.
Other candidates are Alpine lawyer Stewart Peay; Murray flight attendant and writer Debbie Aldrich; Provo defense contractor Paul Fife; American Fork lawyer Damian Kidd; Vineyard roadside emergency assistance representative Keith Kuder; Murray Uber driver Shayne Row; and Curtis.
Mike Leavitt, an Orem forestry worker, has told the GOP he has left the race although he has not officially filed the required paperwork with the state. Another Republican, Salt Lake TV producer Brigham Cottam, is also out of the race because he failed to submit voter signatures and did not choose to compete at the convention.
It will take nearly 1 ½ hours at the GOP convention Saturday just to get through the six-minute-long candidate speeches, and that will be followed by multiple rounds of voting to settle on a nominee.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have decided to keep voting until a single candidate is chosen. In a typical election, candidates have to win the support of at least 60 percent of the delegates in the final round to avoid a primary.
Cox said he was pleased so many candidates of all parties are making a run to replace Chaffetz at what he termed "a scary time" for Washington, D.C., and the nation.
He said Wednesday's shooting at a GOP congressional baseball team practice in Virginia "obviously concerns all of us, and it's not the first time we've seen violence in politics, but we are in a difficult place in the country right now."
The lieutenant governor said politics at the national level have become contentious, "so that people would want to charge headlong into that, I think is truly remarkable, and I'm grateful there are still people willing to do it."
Chaffetz, first elected in 2008, has said he was tired of being away from his family and ready to move to the private sector. He is expected to take a job with Fox News.