The most surprising thing about this year’s Republican state convention wasn’t that Mitt Romney failed to secure the Senate nomination; it’s that people were surprised by it.
The days after the April 21 convention brought headlines like “Romney Loses GOP Convention, Derails Senate Coronation,” “Romney Forced into Primary” and “Mitt Romney Fails to Secure Utah GOP Nomination.” These are all a bit breathless for an outcome that most, including Romney, expected.
Romney was never supposed to win the nomination at the convention outright. In fact, by getting 49 percent on the last ballot, he probably overperformed. The party’s most conservative voters populate the state’s Republican conventions. These are the same conservatives who denied then-U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett the nomination in 2010 because he worked across the aisle, something convention delegates treated like an act of treason. These are the same conservatives who threatened U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2006 and 2012 because they think he is too moderate.
The convention process began with caucuses on March 20; just 38 days after Romney announced his candidacy. The process of getting supporters to the caucuses starts months in advance, and Romney knew he wasn’t going to pull that rabbit out of a hat in 38 days. Under convention rules, a candidate needs the support of 60 percent of the delegates to avoid a primary, at least theoretically. If no candidate gets 60 percent, candidates finishing at the bottom are eliminated and delegates vote again until someone gets 60 percent or there are just two candidates remaining. By the time the convention got underway, there were 12 candidates seeking the Senate nomination, so the balloting process took a while. The last ballot featured Romney and state Rep. Mike Kennedy. Kennedy took 51 percent, well below the 60 percent needed, to Romney’s 49 percent.
The difference for Romney between this convention and the one that ended Bennett’s political career in 2010 is that Utah has changed the law so that the convention process is no longer the only path to the primary ballot. On April 10, Romney submitted more than 43,000 signatures, more than the required 28,000, to qualify for the primary ballot, and he used volunteers as opposed to paid signature gatherers.
If Romney went into the convention knowing that he wouldn’t get 60 percent then he also knew he would get a primary challenger. The primary shouldn’t require too much heavy lifting and he is a strong favorite in the June 26 contest. The state’s Republican primary electorate isn’t nearly as conservative as the delegates to the state convention, and Romney is popular with rank-and-file Republicans. A February poll showed that 75 percent of Republicans support him. In a general election, 59 percent of unaffiliated voters preferred Romney. In addition, he had $1,15 million in the bank as of March 31, compared to $257,488 for Kennedy.
In sum, the result of the state convention and the reaction to them is much ado about nothing. Romney remains heavily favored to win the seat in November.