The 2015 Legislative session could be a huge one for Gov. Gary Herbert.
He’s proposed a number of “big things” this year - Healthy Utah and a massive increase in education funding to name a few.
It’s imperative he get these proposals passed.
Why? Because his 2016 re-election bid could be riding on it.
Even though Herbert has been in office since 2009, winning elections in 2010 and 2012, there is a potential vulnerability lurking. It’s not much but, as often happens in politics, little things become big things.
It’s not that Herbert is unpopular. Just the opposite. His approval rating is consistently in the low to mid-70’s. His net positive rating in the latest UtahPolicy.com poll is a stunning +56. Among Republicans it’s even higher at +84. That’s a great position to be in.
But, as the unnamed Imperial officer said to Grand Moff Tarkin during the climactic scene in Star Wars, “We’ve analyzed their attack sir, and there is a danger.”
In short, he needs to put something big on his resume and do it this year.
Even though Utah’s economy is roaring, even though we’re the #1 state for business and near or at the top of many other lists, that’s not a bulletproof election winner for Herbert. Here’s why.
He’s almost certain to face a challenge for the GOP nomination from Jonathan Johnson, Chairman of the Board for Overstock.com. Herbert can tout Utah’s business bonafides all he wants, but Johnson would be able to argue that he would be able to manage Utah’s business ecosystem equal to or better than Herbert because of his business background. Any pro-business fight would be a tie. In baseball the tie goes to the runner. Not so in politics.
There has to be something else on which Herbert can stake a claim. Right now, his list of major accomplishments while in office seems a little light. Being the #1 state for business only goes so far. There has to be something else.
Herbert needs to boost education funding or get his alternative to Medicaid expansion passed because those are exactly the kinds of programs that would carry some appeal and cache with primary voters.
And, that’s who Herbert would need to appeal to if he is forced into a primary by Johnson or another business-minded challenger. That’s assuming SB 54 survives survives legislative shenanigans and there’s two path’s to the primary ballot. If lawmakers are able to derail the compromise with Count My Vote, leaving the caucus convention as the only nominating mechanism, anything could happen.
Johnson would be able to compete evenly with Herbert on the money playing field. Herbert has been raising money and lining up donors. If Johnson can equal him in that department, it could come down to big accomplishments. Why do you think Johnson has been taking a higher profile with issues like immigration reform and backing Rep. Gage Froerer's "Right to Try" bill? That's resume building.
This is not a clear and present danger for Herbert. 2016 is a long way off.
Herbert told me when we sat down for a conversation prior to the session that he didn’t make decisions with an eye toward his legacy, that he only wanted to do what is best for Utah.
That’s the safe political answer. He may have to do something bolder to survive beyond 2016.