The big-money campaign of Gov. Gary Herbert prevailed in grand fashion in Tuesday’s primary election over Jonathan Johnson, who managed to woo 64,000 Republican votes to the incumbent’s 166,000.
Johnson, the chairman of Overstock.com, forced a primary face off with Herbert after he beat the governor in April’s Republican convention by winning 55 percent of the 4,000 voting delegates.
After the convention loss, Herbert said he was anxious to take the race to a wider pool of the state’s Republican electorate, which overwhelmingly voted to send Herbert on to the general election, where he’ll face Democratic candidate Michael Weinholtz.
While Johnson preached hard-line conservative messages, digging Herbert on tax raises, federal education standards and not railing hard enough against federal agencies, the two men also sparred over how they chose to bankroll their political efforts.
In April, Herbert was recorded telling a group of lobbyists that he would meet with their clients in exchange for robust campaign contributions. He said he was “available Jones,”
a reference to a comic strip character that would do anything for a price. Johnson’s campaign characterized Herbert’s offer as a “pay-to-play” scheme.
In order to keep himself in the money game, Johnson raised the bulk of his $974,607 from his boss, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, who gave his employee $700,000 in campaign contributions, two of which arrived in $250,000 chunks—vast sums of cash that would have ran afoul of campaign finance laws in most states. Utah allows unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations in statewide races.
Even with Byrne’s largess, Johnson’s campaign couldn’t keep up in the money race with Herbert, who raised the majority of his $2 million from corporations and special interest groups.
Herbert will have to get back on the cash-raising trail soon, as campaign disclosure reports show that he spent $1.5 million in his battle with Johnson. Weinholtz, a wealthy businessman who has shunned donations from corporations and has chosen to largely self-fund his campaign with $1 million so far from his personal bank account, has $234,607 on hand.
In 2015, Millcreek voters decided they wanted to become a city and one of the first big leaps in that direction is to elect a mayor and city council.
While the drive to incorporate Millcreek took years and was as a heated battle between the pro-city and pro-county camps, the race for mayor has taken on an unusual wrinkle.
Official election results show that Jeff Silvestrini won with 32.5 percent of the vote, while Fred Healey arrived in second with 26.5 percent—earning both men a chance at running against each other in the November general election.
But in an email to his supporters five days before the election, Healey announced that he has been diagnosed with cancer and is unsure if he’ll be able to see his mayoral dreams through. He also urged any of his supporters who had not yet voted to support Silvestrini.
A short time later, Silvestrini sent out an email to Millcreek residents expressing his sadness about Healey’s condition, and notifying them that his opponent had endorsed his mayoral bid.
In the midst of this scramble, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen says that Salt Lake County lawyers informed her that Healey was legally able to drop out of the election at any time. Any votes cast for Healey, Swensen says, would have been invalidated.
Swensen says she contacted Healey to inform him of this possibility on June 24, and then put it in writing the day before the election.
Had Healey dropped out of the race, Swensen says “we would have posted a notice on our website and we would have suppressed any vote that would have been placed for him already. No one would have known how many votes he had received. That was totally up to him whether he wanted to withdraw or not.”
By remaining in the race, Healey may have paved a clear and uncontested path to the mayor’s seat for Silvestrini. Without Healey in the race, the third place finisher in the field of nine, Scott Howell, would have placed second, sending him into a runoff election against Silvestrini.
Silvestrini says any contention that he and Healey colluded to ensure that there wouldn’t be a runoff is “categorically untrue.”
“It’s unfortunate that people would even say that there’s something going on about that,” Silvestrini says. “It kind of took the bloom off the rose of my celebration, that somebody would say that Fred and I colluded on this.”
Howell, a former state legislator, says he got a strange feeling that something was up between Silvestrini and Healey when the two men hosted a “free pie and conversation” night at a Millcreek restaurant.
“Maybe that’s a strategy to team up,” Howell says. “All my campaigns, there are competitors, and short of going to a meet the candidates or a town meeting, you just pretty well keep your distance unless it’s a debate or something like that.”
Healey’s campaign manager did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If Healey does end up dropping from the race, Swensen says there is no avenue in state law that would allow the third place finisher to more on to the general election.