UT-03 Special Election: GOP Primary Heats Up

Believe it or not, Georgia's 6th CD wasn't the final special election of 2017. Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz's resignation from the House to become a Fox News commentator has spawned a spirited GOP three-way primary to succeed him on August 15. And although this is the 16th most Republican and likely the most heavily Mormon district in the country, the final general election margin on November 7 is worth watching.

Utah's 3rd CD stretches from the Four Corners region to the immediate suburbs of Salt Lake City, but its largest city is Provo, home to Brigham Young University. The district gave Mitt Romney 79 percent of the vote in 2012, his third best showing in the country. But in 2016, it gave President Trump just 47 percent. Independent Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and BYU graduate, came in second, while Hillary Clinton came in third with 23 percent.

The general election this November could have been more intriguing had McMullin decided to run as an independent and forge a coalition of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans. Instead, the GOP nominee's main opponent in the fall will be Democratic physician Kathie Allen, an anti-gerrymandering and anti-Trump activist who grew up in California and doesn't sport an ideal resume to win crossover support.

The GOP primary is all but certain to determine Chaffetz's successor and features three contenders: Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state Rep. Chris Herrod and attorney and business consultant Tanner Ainge. Curtis started out with the most name recognition and begins as the favorite in the sprint to the primary, but he might not have had a prayer if it hadn't been for a recent election law change.

It used to be that party conventions, which tend to skew towards the most ardently conservative activists, ruled Utah nominating processes. But a new law allows candidates to bypass conventions and earn a place on the primary ballot if they collect 7,000 signatures instead (convention winners advance to the primary ballot with no signatures required). Primaries tend to attract a more moderate GOP electorate.

Herrod, a home loan officer who still isn't very well known, won the June 17 GOP convention in somewhat of a surprise, beating Curtis and many other Republicans (Ainge didn't compete in the convention phase, while Curtis pursued both "routes"). Herrod promotes Trump's border wall in his ads and has backing from GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. It helped Herrod that he ran Cruz's successful 2016 caucus efforts in the state.

Curtis has served as Provo mayor since 2009 and is popular by most accounts, but he's not regarded as an ideologue. In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for state senate as a pro-life Democrat in 2000. He has served as an executive at Action Target, a shooting range installation business, and touts his job creation record. But his past as a non-Republican and refusal to endorse Trump last year could be scrutinize by Herrod in the final weeks.

Ainge, who holds an undergraduate degree from BYU (like Herrod and Curtis) and a law degree from Northwestern, is the son of former BYU basketball star and current Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, He's running as a somewhat generic "positive" conservative, but he hasn't gained as much traction as initially expected, especially after the elder Ainge lured Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward to Boston last week, upsetting Jazz fans.

A late June poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for UtahPolicy.com had Curtis leading the field with 29 percent to 12 percent for Herrod and 10 percent for Ainge, with a vast 49 percent undecided. Ordinarily, that would seem like a pretty soft lead, but Curtis also has a financial advantage: at the end of June, he had $232,000 on hand (including a $100,000 personal loan) to $131,000 for Ainge and $79,000 for Herrod.

Even with the quick turnaround from convention to primary, that's a pretty slow fundraising pace by congressional special election standards. Curtis's ads show him riding a motorcycle and call him a "doer," but he might be content to try to run out the clock. Herrod has the best hope of consolidating conservatives and Trump fans, but he might need help from outside groups to do so, and the window could be closing.

This race is in the Solid Republican column

Image credit: AP