SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert won by a commanding margin over his GOP primary challenger, Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson, in Tuesday's primary election.
The Governor's Mansion was filled with cheers as Herbert's family, friends and members of his administration heard the first results in the largely vote-by-mail election, showing him with more than 70 percent of the vote.
When the race was called by The Associated Press shortly before 9 p.m., the party upstairs erupted with chants of, "Gary, Gary, Gary," and the governor thanked his supporters as children ran throughout the residence.
Then he went outside the west entrance where the media was waiting to say he was "very gratified" and "humbled" by the large number of voters backing his vision for the state.
Later in the evening, as his lead held, Herbert told reporters he was surprised by the size of his win.
"I thought we had a healthy margin. The polls showed us up in a significant way. But the margin — we're up about 47 percent — and that's just stunning," he said. "It's humbling, I can tell you. It was not expected to have that great a number."
He credited his campaign's positive message for what ended up as a 72 percent to 28 percent lead with about 225,000 votes in statewide, calling the "wedge issues and divisiveness" of his opponent off-putting to voters.
Herbert said the concession call from Johnson was brief. "He thought we'd run a hard campaign. I thanked him for that and wished him and his family well for whatever their future is going to be, and that was about it."
Johnson held a much quieter election night gathering at his campaign headquarters in Holladay, telling about two dozen backers that they should be proud of what his run accomplished.
“If this campaign has failed, it’s my fault,” he said. "But we should not stand with our heads hung low, but we should stand with our heads held high. We have changed the discussion in Utah.”
Johnson said he was "disappointed" by the size of Herbert's win. He said he was "not going to blame this on anything other than I tried my best, and it wasn’t a message that resonated with people."
Although first-time candidate Johnson, 50, was seen as the underdog for taking on a sitting governor with high approval ratings, he beat Herbert at the GOP state convention in late April with the backing of 55 percent of party delegates.
Days later, the governor was secretly recorded at a meeting with lobbyists offering to sit down with their clients in exchange for a campaign contribution and calling himself "Available Jones," a comic strip character willing to do anything for a price.
Herbert, 69, blamed what he said could have been a more "artful" attempt to convey to his supporters that he was going to campaign hard for a second full term in office on his "seal to let people know, 'Look, I'm not taking anything for granted.'"
Fundraising was also an issue for Johnson, who received some $900,000 for his campaign and political action committee from a single donor, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne.
Byrne has said there is "no quid pro quo" associated with his support of Johnson. His most recent contribution was $50,000 on June 22, more than half what Johnson has raised since his most recent campaign financial disclosure filing due a day earlier.
That filing showed Johnson had just under $93,000 on hand as of June 21. The governor had just under $600,000 available as of the same date, and had collected about $20,000 since then.
Both candidates filled the airwaves with commercials, with Johnson attempting to ensure voters hadn't forgotten about the governor's ties to lobbyists while emphasizing their differences on education, public lands and other issues.
Johnson criticized the governor for his long-standing support for the controversial Common Core education standards, reversed at the state convention, as well as for not taking the federal government to court over its control of public lands in Utah.
Herbert, head of the National Governors Association, focused his campaign message largely on the strength of Utah's economy and the top rankings the state has earned from the financial world, something he frequently touts.
He has also recently announced a pledge to make the state No. 1 in educational achievement, promising increased investment in schools and "a new emphasis on innovation to boost student performance."
The pair participated in a single debate, hosted by the Utah Federation of Republican Women on April 11 and broadcast live on KSL Newsradio. The governor turned down other requests, including from KSL-TV.
Herbert, a former Utah County commissioner, was lieutenant governor when he assumed the governorship in 2009 after then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.
He had to run in 2010 for the remainder of Huntsman's term and faced a tough challenge from Democrat Peter Corroon, then Salt Lake County mayor and now chairman of the Utah Democratic Party.
Tuesday's election is the first primary for the governor, who gathered voter signatures to guarantee a place on the ballot under a change in the law being contested in court by the Utah Republican Party.
That decision likely cost Herbert support among party delegates, but he maintained a strong lead in the polls throughout the race. The exception was internal polling information released by Johnson's campaign earlier this month.
Johnson was endorsed by FreedomWorks, a national conservative group that tried unsuccessfully to oust Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. Herbert had the support of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, one of the state's most popular politicians.
The governor now faces Democrat Mike Weinholtz, Libertarian Brian Kamerath and Independent American Superdell Schanze in November.
Weinholtz, who has already put $1 million of his own money into the race, said in a statement that he's “running because the majority of people in Utah have been ignored and disenfranchised by the current governor, and the Legislature."
Herbert said he'll continue to run a positive campaign through the general election.
"I'll run on my own record. I've never run a negative campaign. I don't plan to do that now. I have great respect for Mr. Weinholtz as a businessman," the governor said. "I'm sure he has some great ideas."
Contributing: Katie McKellar
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