PROVO, Utah — A surprise victory at a Republican convention in Utah Saturday set the stage for a three-way race to replace US Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is stepping down at the end of the month.
After five rounds of voting, Utah developer and former state representative Chris Herrod won the endorsement of GOP delegates in the state's third congressional district. The victory was something of a surprise: Herrod was competing against 10 other Republicans, and earlier in the day, many observers had expected one of two state senators, Diedre Henderson or Margaret Dayton, to emerge on top.
Still, Saturday's vote does not guarantee Herrod the party nomination. Thanks to a Utah law that went into effect in 2015, Herrod will have to compete in an August primary with two other Republicans who opted to get on the ballot by collecting signatures rather than by wooing delegates at the party convention.
Herrod's competitors include Tanner Ainge, the son of basketball player Danny Ainge, and John Curtis, the mayor of Provo, the largest city in the district Chaffetz currently represents. The district is so solidly red that whoever ultimately emerges with the Republican nomination will very likely go on to win Chaffetz's seat in November.
Though Ainge has maintained a low profile and a campaign website with little information, the race between Herrod and Curtis offers voters a choice between a hardline conservative and a former Democrat known for bridging party gaps.
"I really believe in the conservative cause," Herrod said told reporters Sunday. "And I believe the nation is in danger." And though he said he would "resist" being labeled as "far right," Herrod added, "I am a constitutional conservative."
Herrod also noted that he ran Texas Senator Ted Cruz's presidential primary campaign last year in Utah — a role the candidate suggested would open fundraising doors as he prepares to compete in the August primary.
"The Republicans...in congress, have been given a unique opportunity to have the presidency and the House and the Senate and I think they’re squandering it," he said.
Herrod may have been reluctant to assume take on the "far right" label, but supporters who spoke with BuzzFeed News repeatedly emphasized his willingness to stick to conservative principles.
"He’s going to be more conservative than Jason Chaffetz," Stefanie Williams, a convention volunteer, told BuzzFeed News
Curtis also describes himself as a conservative, but his campaign pitch has so far focused on his record as mayor in Provo, where he has been known for reaching out to to slim municipal budgets and revitalize his city's downtown, as well as woo Google Fiber to take over the local internet service.
"I’ve got a 94% approval rating in the most conservative city, arguably, in the most conservative state," he told reporters Saturday. "You can’t do that and not appeal to the conservatives."
There are a lot of similarities between the two men, who know each other and once competed for the same state office. They both spoke positively of each other Saturday, and noted that their kids are friends. Herrod even mentioned that he voted for his now-rival's mayoral ticket.
Still, there are notable differences. Perhaps most significantly, Curtis is a former Democrat, who ran on that party's ticket in a state senate bid in 2000, and served as the Utah County Democratic Party chairman in 2002. Though he later changed his party affiliation, Curtis acknowledged Saturday that "there’s a lot of people that won’t let me get past that."
"I knew from the beginning I’m kind of the dark horse," he said.
Curtis competed in the the district's GOP convention Saturday, but was eliminated before the final round of voting. But he has already gathered enough signatures to ensure him a place on the primary ballot.
The choice between Herrod and Curtis, then, is shaping up to be one between a figure who thrived in a party system, and a "dark horse" who used signature gathering — a relatively new process in Utah electoral politics — to circumvent the GOP establishment.
For supporters of Curtis — who has built a significant volunteer infrastructure on his home turf in Provo and turned in double the required number of signatures — that dark horse status is one of the selling points.
"I'm very vocal in my support for John Curtis," said Chad Pritchard, who lives in Provo and observed the convention Saturday. "A lot of people are against John because he went the signature route. And I applaud him for doing that."
Pritchard added that the Utah GOP's traditional delegate-centric system hamstrings some candidates.
"They've essentially put barriers up for people to run. and we end up with political dynasties in states like this," he told BuzzFeed News. "They say, 'oh well this is a grassroots effort, anybody with no money can run.' That's bullshit and everybody knows it."
Ainge did not appear at Saturday's convention. Though details of his platform are rumored to be forthcoming, he seemed to remain a mystery to many people who spoke with BuzzFeed News Saturday.
What is clear, though, is that coming off of Saturday's win, Herrod suddenly has more momentum that many expected him to have going into the August primary. And he plans to use that to tap into his would-be district's conservative base.
"I'm a true believer," he told BuzzFeed News shortly before his victory Saturday. "I'm a fighter."