State Republican Party delegates anointed Chris Stewart as their candidate for the second congressional district and pushed Grantsville resident Merrill Nelson into a primary against incumbent Bill Wright in the District 68 House race during a heated state convention Saturday at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy. The second congressional district includes Tooele County. House District 68 includes all of Tooele County outside of Tooele City and Stansbury Park.
The state Republican convention also sent several other candidates seeking statewide offices to a primary. Sen. Orrin Hatch will face off with challenger Dan Liljenquist for a U.S. Senate seat. John Swallow and Sean Reyes will compete for the Republican slot in the attorney general’s race. And incumbent state auditor Austin Johnson will contend with former Rep. John Dougall in the primary.
Gov. Gary Herbert defeated all of his Republican opponents at the convention and was sent straight on to the general election without a primary challenge, receiving 63 percent of the votes in the final ballot against opponent Morgan Philpot. Candidates must receive at least 60 percent of the votes from delegates to advance to the general election without a primary.
Stewart, a Farmington resident and small business owner, author and former Air Force pilot, received 63 percent of the votes from second congressional Republican delegates in the third and final round of voting. He defeated former state Speaker of the House Dave Clark to advance to the general election without a primary. It took three ballots for Stewart to emerge as the delegates’ choice. The first ballot reduced the field from 11 candidates to nine. Three candidates withdrew before the second ballot was cast, which left Stewart and Clark on the final ballot.
Stewart’s victory was marked by drama as candidates made accusations of dirty tricks and backroom politics during the convention.
Milt Hanks, the last of the 11 candidates to speak before the first ballot, accused several candidates of conspiring to discredit Chris Stewart and making backroom deals to defeat Stewart.
Some delegates reported receiving an anonymous letter or email just prior to the convention that alleged Stewart was involved in a 2010 negative campaign piece in the U.S. Senate race and had embellished his military record.
The first round of voting then reduced the number of candidates to nine, and each remaining candidate was given one minute to speak. Chuck Williams came to the podium to speak and said, “I can tell you about integrity and I can tell you that Chris Stewart is a bald face liar whether you like it or not.” Williams microphone was turned off and he withdrew from the race in support of Clark.
Then Cherilyn Eager got up to speak and withdrew from the race, endorsing Clark. Hanks’ comments came as surprise, said Chris Sloan, Tooele County Republican Party chairman.
“At the last minute, a candidate [Hanks] dropped a bomb with accusations,” said Chris Sloan, Tooele County Republican Party chairman.
“There was the suggestion of backroom deals and each camp denied any involvement.” It is common practice for candidates that receive more votes to openly seek the endorsement of other candidates before the next round of voting, said Sloan. Stewart will face Democrat Jay Seegmiller of Sandy in the general election.
Faced with five choices for candidates for House District 68, delegates from the district whittled down the field to incumbent Rep. Bill Wright, of Holden, who received 56.4 percent of the votes, and former state representative Merrill Nelson, of Grantsville, who received 43.6 percent of the delegates votes.
Redistricting reshaped District 68 to include rural Tooele County outside of Tooele City and Stansbury Park, plus Millard County and parts of Juab, Beaver and Utah counties.
Wright served in the House from 1989 to 2000, the Senate from 2001 to 2005, and then was appointed to fill a vacancy in the District 68 seat in 2008. “Making it to the primary is very encouraging,” said Nelson. “Tooele County has the numeric advantage with more voters.”
While Nelson is looking forward to Tooele County gaining a second seat in the house, he said he will represent the entire district. Nelson met personally with all 55 delegates from the five counties in District 68 prior to the convention.
“A primary means more work and more money,” said Wright. “But it will give more people the chance to be involved in the process of selecting a candidate than just a few delegates at the convention.”
Wright said his message for the primary will portray him as the common-sense, more conservative choice while Nelson characterized his style as a practical conservative that gets things done by consensus building.
The winner of the June 26 primary will face Democrat Jerry Edwards, of Grantsville, in the November general election.