SALT LAKE CITY — A packed field of Utah Republicans started shaping up Friday to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz while the governor and legislators tussled over whether the state needs to pass emergency laws to hold a special election.
The U.S. Constitution and Utah law say that if a U.S. House seat becomes vacant, the governor will call a special election. But the law offers few additional details on the process.
Gov. Gary Herbert said that allows him and the state elections office to fill in the other details, which they did Friday. Herbert scheduled a Nov. 7 special election, along with an Aug. 15 primary election, where candidates who gather signatures to get on the ballot will compete against candidates nominated by political parties at their conventions.
Legislative leaders disagree with Herbert’s take, arguing that they alone have the power to set Utah election laws. They’re demanding Herbert call them into an emergency legislative session to spell out the special election process before Chaffetz leaves office on June 30.
In a joint statement, legislative leaders called the move to schedule the election an overreach by Herbert. “Nowhere is the executive branch given the authority to establish election procedures,” the statement reads.
“Lawmakers are furious right now,” Greg Hartley, the chief of staff for Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, said in a statement.
Hartley said lawmakers may consider a lawsuit, but they most likely will take steps in the future to ensure, through some act of the Legislature, “to ensure this type of overreach doesn’t ever happen again.” Hartley’s statement didn’t offer details on what that might look like.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican whose office oversees elections, said at a news conference Friday that the governor wants a speedy process that allows for all voters to have a voice. He said his office started coming up with possible election timelines when Chaffetz announced last month that he might leave early.
Cox said Chaffetz had notified the governor’s office that he was considering leaving around June 30 and discussed whether the state would have enough time for an election.
Cox’s chief deputy, Mark Thomas, said that election officials do not yet know what the special election will cost the state, but he said some money will be saved because the primary and general election dates fall on the same days that municipal elections are being held.
Thomas said that once the state certifies the election results on Nov. 28, it would be up the U.S. House of Representatives to decide when to swear-in Chaffetz’s replacement, meaning the seat could sit empty for five or six months.
A number of Republican elected officials and other political figures said Friday that they’re jumping in the race or considering running, including state Sen. Deidre Henderson, a former Chaffetz campaign manager. State Sen. Margaret Dayton and Rep. Brad Daw, both of Orem, also announced their candidacy. American Fork lawyer Damian Kidd was already planning to challenge Chaffetz.
At least two Democrats — physician Kathryn Allen and biologist Carl Ingwell —have jumped in. But they’ll face an uphill battle in Chaffetz’s heavily Republican district, which stretches from Salt Lake City’s southeastern suburbs to desert towns in southeastern Utah and includes heavily conservative Mormon areas.
Candidates have until 5 p.m. May 26 to file to run.