SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert isn't the first popular governor Republican state convention delegates have forced into a primary election.
In 2000, unhappy GOP conventioneers booed and jeered Gov. Mike Leavitt, a two-term governor with an 80 percent approval rating. Delegate sentiment that Leavitt wasn't conservative enough carried unknown and underfunded challenger Glen Davis into a primary.
Leavitt crushed Davis in the election, but the GOP delegates, who tend to be more conservative than Republican voters as a whole, made their point.
Herbert went into last weekend's convention with a high popularity rating and a national profile as head of the National Governor's Association. He left fighting for his political life against Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson, who poses a more formidable challenge than Leavitt faced 16 years ago.
Delegates' ire this time around centered on SB54, the disputed state election law that provides a signature-gathering path outside the traditional caucus/convention system to get on the primary ballot. Herbert used it. Johnson didn't, a point he made to delegates by saying he had placed his trust in them.
SB54 sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, also faces a primary. Bramble, who serves as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, collected signatures. His opponent, former Utah House member Chris Herrod, one of the law's most outspoken critics, did not.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said SB54 is a subtext of everything that went on over the weekend, adding GOP leaders and delegates are passionate about that issue.
"That has to shape our interpretation of what happened at the convention," he said.
Delegates might have signaled some dissatisfaction among Republican activists but also made a symbolic statement about their loyalty to the convention process, Karpowitz said. It's hard at this point, he said, to disentangle whether the votes for Johnson were based on his position on issues or in strong opposition to the new election law.
"It's very likely a little bit of both," Karpowitz said.
Herbert said signature gathering hurt him with the delegates. "We're kind of a divided party over this SB54," he told KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" on Monday.
Johnson won 55 percent of the delegate vote to 45 percent for Herbert.
Johnson also might be capitalizing on the notion that Herbert isn't conservative enough. His appeal to delegates included touting more localized control of education, getting more aggressive on suing the federal government over public lands and holding the line on taxes, and believes Saturday's results are a good sign.
"I think that the convention reflects what will happen in the primary more than many in the press like to say," he said on Wright's radio show.
Herbert said Johnson distorts his record with kernels of truth but not the whole story. He said he stands behind his accomplishments including improving schools, lifting Utah out of a recession and bolstering the economy.
In theory, Herbert said, delegates represent the views of the neighborhoods that elect them in caucus meetings. "I guess that's the great debate is whether they do or not," said the governor, noting his 75 percent approval rating among Republicans.
The GOP primary election, open to only registered Republicans, is June 28.
Karpowitz said Johnson's convention win was an important moment for his campaign, but he still has to convince voters who do not care about SB54 and the convention system that he's their man.
"Messages that resonate among delegates may not resonate to the same extent with primary voters," he said.
Herbert said he doesn't think frustration over SB54 was aimed at him personally. But, he said, there's a notion among some GOP members that "I'm more Republican than you are because I didn't support SB54."
"I certainly wasn't the one who started Count My Vote," Herbert said of the initiative to scrap the convention system in favor a direct primary election. Interestingly, Leavitt was among the prominent Republicans backing the effort designed to increase voter participation.
The Legislature ended up passing a compromise bill that kept the caucus/convention system intact while permitting signature gathering to secure a place on the ballot. Some candidates, like Herbert, used both paths.
Herbert said he did what he could to preserve the caucus/convention system. But he didn't veto the bill when he had the chance, though later told the GOP State Central Committee that he probably should have done so and let voters decide.