When Governor Gary Herbert touted Utah's economy and challenged the federal government in his state of the state address yesterday, he wasn't just speaking to Utah's 2.8 million residents. He also likely was speaking to the few thousand Republican activists who will play a key role in deciding his political fate in April.
The Republican incumbent faces three challengers from the right. David Kirkham, a founder of a Utah Tea Party group, entered the race last week, joining State Representative Ken Sumsion and former State Representative Morgan Philpot. While Herbert takes conservative positions on most issues, some on the right are upset with him for signing an immigration law that included new guest worker programs and for signing a law that restricted access to governments records. The public records law was later repealed.
As the National Journal pointed out last week, Utah Republicans' convention system is one reason that Herbert is in jeopardy. Unless one candidate receives 60 percent of the vote at the convention, the top two candidates will advance to a primary-meaning Herbert wouldn't have the advantage of divided opposition. Plus, the conventions have tended to favor conservative activists over the Republican establishment. In 2010, U.S. Senator Bob Bennett, an 18-year incumbent, didn't even advance to the primary. He was beaten by two challengers on his right.
Herbert became governor in 2009 when President Obama appointed Governor Jon Huntsman ambassador to China. He won the remainder of Huntsman's term in a special election in 2010 and now is gunning for a full term of his own. Like other Republican governors this year, Herbert called for increased school funding in his speech. He also proposed a raise for teachers.
Most of the governor's speech, though, focused on the economy, and he cast his tenure as an economic success. Utah's unemployment has declined to 6 percent, he noted, and Forbes rated Utah as the best state to do business. "We currently have the second-fastest rate of job creation in the nation," Herbert said, according to his prepared remarks . "Every sector in our economy is growing again, except one. And I'm proud to say the sector that is not growing is state government."
Plus, he condemned the federal government. "As a sovereign state, we not only have an obligation to find Utah solutions to Utah problems, we have a right to do so," Herbert said. "We will not capitulate to a federal government that refuses to be constrained by its proper and Constitutionally limited role." Lines such as those led the Salt Lake Tribune to comment in an editorial , "These rhetorical flourishes were intended to woo ultraconservative delegates who will attend the Republican state convention this spring."
Still, Herbert may not be willing to match some of the rhetorical flourishes of his foes. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Philpot remarked last year that he would have Utah nullify the federal health care law even if the courts uphold it. "Am I going to jail if I do? If that's what it's going to take," Philpot said. "Does the federal government need to come down and throw some handcuffs on the governor of Utah?"