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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert will face Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson in a GOP primary after winning just under 45 percent of the delegate vote at Saturday's Utah Republican Party State Convention.
"That's a significant victory," Johnson told reporters after beating the governor by 425 votes, 2,108 to 1,683. "Nine months ago when this started, I don't think anyone gave me a chance."
Herbert, who first took office in 2009, tried to sound upbeat even though he could have secured the nomination and avoided the June 28 runoff election by getting 60 percent of the delegate vote.
"The good news is we're in a primary," the governor said. "So we're excited about taking this to the next level. Rather than just 4,000 Republican delegates, now we're going to take it out to the broader family of 600,000."
Herbert said he was hurt by the new election process that limits the nominating power of party delegates by allowing candidates to gather voter signatures to guarantee a place on the primary ballot.
The Utah GOP has taken the state to court over the law, known as SB54, and Herbert was among the minority of candidates who chose to collect signatures as well as compete at the convention.
"I've been sued by my own party, and multiple times," he said. "That's taken some body blows. Clearly, there was some angst about that" among delegates who "are a little more protective, and they don't particularly like this more inclusive approach."
Herbert was careful not to be too critical in describing his reaction to the delegates' action. Asked if he felt betrayed by the delegates, he said, "I wouldn't say betrayed. Again, I think people get emotional and exercised."
Johnson made a point of reminding delegates in his campaign speech that, unlike the governor, he didn't gather voter signatures.
"Know that I have placed my complete trust in you and the process," he said, later urging them to "send those in the establishment who are attacking the caucus convention system a message."
His speech also stressed that the governor hasn't been aggressive enough against Washington, D.C., on Common Core education standards and the federal government's control of public lands.
Herbert gave a fiery speech to delegates, saying, "I am listening" and calling for a bigger role for parents in education. "We shouldn't look to government for the answers and definitely not the federal government in any way, shape or form."
He also criticized the "slash and burn" approach of his opponents and cited the quick reopening of the state's national parks during the federal government shutdown as an example of his leadership. "Real leaders don't sit back. They take action."
But even in the first round of voting, Johnson had a 55 percent to 44 percent lead over Herbert. The other candidates in the race, Carlos Tavares Jr. and Nate Jensen, had only a handful of votes and were eliminated.
State GOP Chairman James Evans said Herbert may have borne the brunt of voter frustration this election year.
"Some of the sentiment was SB54. Some of it was, with this new group of delegates, more anti-establishment. People have just had enough. They're saying we need changes," Evans said. "I don't see it so much against Gary Herbert as a person."
The party chairman spoke out at convention against the controversial election law, passed by a GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Herbert as a compromise to stop the Count My Vote initiative that would have established a direct primary.
Evans said in his speech that party leaders still have to decide whether to appeal a federal court ruling largely upholding the law and if there need to be new rules put in place, such as endorsing candidates who don't take the alternate route to the ballot.
Republicans, the chairman said, "need to make sure offices aren't purchased by the highest bidder."
The Sutherland Institute's Boyd Matheson said the governor's showing does reflect the political climate. But Matheson, who has worked with Utah Republicans Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mia Love, said Herbert's campaign was also to blame.
"They were a little flat-footed in terms of being very assertive and really going forward with a message," Matheson said, calling the governor "a little defensive" at the convention.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is the only member of Utah's congressional delegation headed to a primary. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, also had a GOP challenger, David Yu-Lin Chiu, but was nominated at convention.
Chaffetz won the support of more than 60 percent of the delegates, but his opponent for the District 3 congressional seat, Chia-Chi Teng, collected enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.
Two state lawmakers whose districts extend beyond a single county, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, also have primary elections. Bramble will face former state House member Chris Herrod, and Brown will be challenged by Logan Wilde.
There was significant competition to become a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, where a presidential nominee will be chosen. Utah's 40 GOP delegates are pledged to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
However, efforts to derail the GOP front-runner, billionaire businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump, may lead to a contested convention that would allow Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, or another candidate to emerge as the party's pick.
Many of the nearly 500 Utahns running for a delegate or alternate slot were on slates supporting specific candidates or causes, including stopping Trump or electing Kasich.
Cruz recorded a message to Utah delegates from the campaign trail urging them to elect his official slate of delegates, committed to voting for the Texas senator on every round of balloting at the national convention.
The governor's race, though, was the most hard-fought Saturday. Before the convention got underway, Herbert, Johnson and their armies of supporters were vying for votes among the nearly 4,000 delegates.
At a massive booth at the front of the Salt Palace Convention Center hall, Herbert's campaign handed out cowboy hats and "Fighting the Feds" sheriff's badges while the governor fielded questions about federal overreach.
Further back in the hall, Johnson was also addressing delegates. He drew applause from a crowd surrounding his bright green booth when he announced Overstock.com had stopped selling pornographic materials.
Earlier this week, Herbert's running mate, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, criticized Johnson for supporting a state resolution labeling porn a public health crisis while allowing porn to be sold on Overstock.com.
Both campaigns expressed confidence before the start of the day-long convention.
"We've got good energy, good response," Justin Harding, the governor's chief of staff, said early Saturday. "We've been flooded all morning with supporters coming in. If they've got questions, we've got answers."
Johnson spokesman Brady Quinn said the challenger's campaign "feels the momentum is strong." Quinn said delegates crowded Johnson's booth throughout the morning, many taking green tote bags.
He said the governor's efforts to woo supporters, which also included a band in the convention center lobby, were "great." But Quinn said Johnson is "not buying our delegates."
Contributing: Ladd Egan