The Week in Politics: Utah Governor's Big Win, Teachers' Legislative Takeover Attempt and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | July 1, 2016

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The Good, the Bad and the Sad in Utah's GOP Primary

In the end, it wasn't close. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert took 72 percent of the GOP primary vote against Jonathan Johnson, the chair of retailer Overstock.com. It was a much bigger victory than the governor might have expected.

That's because Johnson had beaten Herbert at the state GOP convention in April. He fell short, though, of the 60 percent necessary to secure the nomination. Herbert will now be an overwhelming favorite to win re-election against Democrat Mike Weinholtz, a health-care executive.

Though Herbert won, there was one notable incumbent Utah legislator who lost on Tuesday.

Republican state Rep. Mel Brown, who served as speaker in the 1990s, lost his seat to Logan Wilde, who chairs the Morgan County Council.

And there was one sad oddity in a local race. A total of nine candidates ran for mayor in the newly incorporated city of Millcreek, which is just south of Salt Lake City. If Tuesday's results hold up after mail-in ballots are counted, Jeff Healey will have a spot on the November ballot. But Healey disclosed last week that he may not be able to continue his campaign due to an aggressive kidney tumor.

Healey sent out an email encouraging his supporters to vote for Jeff Silvestrini if they were concerned about his condition. There's no mechanism to replace him on the November ballot, so if Healey drops out, Silvestrini -- who finished first -- would automatically win.

In Oklahoma, Teachers Pack Legislative Races

The so-called teacher caucus in Oklahoma may not gain too many new members. A group called Oklahoma Teachers and Parents for Public Education helped recruit 40 current and former educators to run in legislative races in hopes of eventually increasing state spending on education.

But half of them lost in primaries on Tuesday, five more face runoffs, and many of those who won nominations are in districts where they'll have a hard time winning in the fall.

A number of them faced opponents who received backing from the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, a political action committee that supports private school vouchers and other choice programs. The group gave financial support to 15 candidates, seven who won outright and five who are advancing to runoffs.

Charles Ortega, the House majority leader, narrowly defeated John Thomas, a member of the Altus school board, by 42 votes.

Three incumbent GOP legislators went down to defeat on Tuesday -- Sen. Corey Brooks and Reps. Dennis Johnson and Ken Walker.

Haley Makes Her Enemies That Much Angrier

Nikki Haley's gamble didn't pay off. The South Carolina governor targeted several of her fellow Republicans for defeat in legislative primaries this year, but she may have only succeeded in strengthening their resolve against her agenda.

A political action committee run by Haley's ex-chief of staff spent heavily against legislators who had voted against an ethics reform package and other priorities of the governor. Some of them lost, but her most powerful opponents remain in place.

"It's a risky proposition," said Chip Felkel, a GOP consultant in the state. "Now you've got to pick up the pieces and try to get something done with people you actively opposed."

One of Haley's allies, Sen. Larry Martin, was defeated in a runoff on Tuesday. He was one of four incumbent senators who lost that day, taking with them a combined 94 years of legislative experience.

Haley had traveled to Martin's district just last week to sign a pair of ethics bills. He chaired the Judiciary Committee. Martin's loss now opens up that slot for Luke Rankin, who survived Haley's attacks in a primary two weeks ago. 

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, another Haley target, also survived and will continue to chair the Finance Committee. All told, only three of the eight candidates that Haley endorsed ended up winning.

That means Haley will spend her last two years in office with two senators she sought to take out running the state Senate's two largest committees.

"If you want to do it, you dang sure want to win," said Felkel.

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