HURRICANE – Attendance was high at the Washington County Republican Convention Saturday as party officials counted a 95 percent turnout among party delegates. The delegates came to choose the party’s candidates for a county commission seat and two legislative races. While one race, Senate District 29, had a definite win for the nomination, the other races will proceed to a primary in June.
“The 2016 Washington County convention could not have gone better,” said Robert Jensen, Washington County Republican chair. “The turnout – we have never before seen a turnout to our caucuses as high as we’ve seen this year.”
Of the party’s 520 delegates, 497 attended the convention held at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Hurricane Saturday morning.
“This is representative-democracy at its best,” Jensen said.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, who currently represents Senate District 29 and is retiring from the Utah Senate at the end of the year, said there’s a lot of excitement this political season.
“I’ve been doing this for 16 years and I don’t know if I’ve seen this level of excitement before,” Urquhart said.
Rep. Don Ipson, who currently represents House District 75 and won the nomination to Senate District 29, called the turnout phenomenal.
“Ninety-five percent attendance is great,” Ipson said. “I think (delegates) elected through neighborhood caucuses took it seriously and got out to vote.”
County Commission Seat C
Three candidates vied for the nomination for the county seat being vacated by Commissioner Alan Gardner. Candidates included pastor and banker Jimi Kestin, Washington County Administrator Dean Cox, and former St. George City Councilman Gil Almquist.
Kestin was knocked out of the race in the first round of voting that gave him 124 votes to Almquist’s 184 votes and Cox’s 187 votes. The second round of votes put Almquist and Cox at a tie with 224 votes each. Because of the tie, the commission race will go to a primary election set for June 28.
“I have always figured we probably would have a primary,” Cox said, noting that Almquist had also collected signatures to get his name on the ballot in addition to going through the caucus-convention system.
“I think the most important thing it shows is our delegates have good choices to push through and were very evenly split,” Cox said, “so I’m honored to be one of those two.”
While speaking to the delegates, Cox and his supporters touted his many years of experience within the Republican Party, as well as his position as county administrator.
“My commitment to conservative ideals is not measured in words, but decades,” Cox said.
Unlike Almquist, Cox said, he hadn’t sought the alternative signature-gathering path to the primary ballot because he trusted their judgment. Almquist acknowledged the criticism, yet said collecting signatures helped put him in contact with a lot of people in the county.
“My team and myself gathered over 1,700 signatures and people that weren’t even interested in the Republican Party anymore, we got them registered and revitalized, and many of them became delegates,” Almquist said.
He added visiting that many households gave him a good idea of the issues that are on the minds of the people in the county.
Senate District 29
Rep. Don Ipson, who currently holds the seat for House District 75, won the nomination with 60 percent of the vote with 203 votes to challenger Richard Jenkins’ 135 votes.
“I’m glad the delegate process worked today,” Ipson said. “The vote was very close. I’m glad to be out and not have a primary.”
Ipson said he has no predisposed agenda to take into the Utah Senate, as he plans to continue representing the needs of his constituency. However, he said he remains passionate about the issues of education, law enforcement and transportation.
Running against Ipson on the Democratic ticket in the general election is former Washington County Democratic Party chair Dorothy Engelman.
House District 75
Slade Hughes was dropped from the race for House District 75 after coming in third behind fellow candidates Steve Kemp and Walt Brooks.
Kemp had 60 votes, follow by Brooks with 45 votes and Hughes with 24 votes. In the second round of votes, Kemp received 69 votes to Brooks’ 55 votes. They will head to a primary election set for June 28.
Currently there are no other challengers for House District 75.
Additional races that were not contested won the party’s nomination through acclimation. They include:
- House District 62 – Rep. Jon Stanard
- House District 71 – Rep. Brad Last
- House District 74 – Rep. V. Lowry Snow
- Legislative Chair for House District 62 – Colin Jack
- Legislative Chair for House District 74 – Marc Stallings
Throughout the conversation, Jensen said how amazed he was by the 95 percent delegate turn out.
“This is remarkable,” Jensen said, and praised delegates for taking the time to becoming involved in the political process and vetting the candidates.
“If America did this, pop culture wouldn’t be running our country,” he said.
A common thread through the convention focused on battling the federal overreach and working to lessen federal regulations in relation to land use.
“People want to be able to keep those lands free and open,” Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said.
Regulations proposed in the current draft resource management plan put forth by the Bureau of Land Management for the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs national conservation areas is often seen as an example of federal overreach by county and municipal officers.
The BLM, county and City of St. George are currently working together to find common ground on issues raised by the proposed plan.
The continuing call for more local control over public lands and other matters such as education were recurring themes among the candidates.
Urquhart and Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner were honored for their long years of service by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. He was at the convention to represent Gov. Gary Herbert.
During parts of the convention, the Count My Vote compromise legislation of 2014 was brought up. The legislation allows potential candidates to bypass the caucus-convention system by gathering a set number of signatures in order to be placed on a political party’s primary ballot.
For example, if Almquist hadn’t gained enough delegate votes to go to a primary through the convention, he would still have a place on the party’s primary ballot due to collecting the required number of signatures.
Though signed into law by the governor two years ago, the Utah Republican Party filed lawsuits challenging the legislation, claiming it violates the party’s constitutional right to choose how party candidates are chosen.
In a ruling late Friday, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer upheld the controversial new election law.
Nuffer ruled that Republican candidates may access the primary election ballot in one of two ways – either through gathering enough signatures to be placed on the ballot or through the state’s more conventional caucus and convention system that allows delegates to choose candidates.
The judge determined the signature-gathering method, laid out in SB54, is “a legitimate exercise of the state’s power to regulate elections” and “does not impair the URP’s constitutional rights.”
The Utah GOP favors the caucus-convention system as party officials say it empowers the delegates with the ability to vet the candidates and keep them accountable. It also allows potential candidates who lack a large financial base for a campaign to get on the ballot, versus a well-established candidate who may have a deep war chest and a legion of donors.
“In this room, it’s not money that wins the votes,” Jensen said.
However, others feel the issue has been decided and needs to be dropped by the Utah GOP.
“That has been decided and it’s over,” Urquhart said. “Unfortunately, the (Utah) Republican Party chair, James Evans, hasn’t gotten the memo on that.”
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