Overstock.com chairman aims to unseat popular Utah governor

By Jennifer Yachnin | 12/15/2015 06:47 AM EST

The voters of Utah like Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. They really like him.

The voters of Utah like Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. They really like him.

A survey conducted for the website Utah Policy and released last week found 72 percent of the state’s voters approve of Herbert’s job performance, a figure that increases to 86 percent when it includes only Republican voters.

Those figures bode well for Herbert as he readies to seek a third election to the governor’s mansion and his second full term in office. Herbert won his first term in a 2010 special election to succeed former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R).


But that unrivaled popularity is likely less welcomed by Republican Jonathan Johnson, a political novice and chairman of the board of online retailer Overstock.com Inc., who is hoping to knock Herbert out of office next year.

Johnson, who launched his challenge to Herbert in September, has been attacking the Republican executive from the party’s right wing, arguing the governor has been ineffective on issues like education and curtailing the state’s reliance on federal appropriations.

"We may say the same things, but he’s said the same things for eight years with very little of it getting done," Johnson said earlier this month in a mock debate with Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis on Fox News affiliate KZNU radio. Dabakis is not seeking the governor’s office.

In his uphill bid against Herbert — the governor won his first full term in 2012 with 68 percent of the vote — Johnson has spent significant time discussing his desire to transfer much of Utah’s federal public lands to state control.

"I think it really puts Utah in a bind that we have two-thirds of our land owned by the federal government," Johnson said in the mock debate. He went on to praise the National Park Service, adding that his criticisms are aimed at the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"Over the decades that the federal government has managed these lands, the health of these lands has gotten worse, the access to these lands has gotten worse, and the productivity of these lands has gotten worse," Johnson said. "They really manage them as if they are a museum: don’t touch, just look, don’t go in them, don’t use them."

Johnson added: "I think we need state management of them, state ownership of them, not so that we’re selling them off and we have private ranches … but so all Utahans can enjoy them. And I think we manage them not like a museum but like a garden."

But Johnson, who has also framed the push for state ownership of public lands as a matter of "self-reliance," disputes suggestions that the state merely wants to mine and drill on those public lands.

"We’re not looking to put an oil derrick under Delicate Arch or to strip-mine Grand Staircase-Escalante [National Monument] or to clear cut the forests. What we are looking for is to make these lands productive again so that wildfires don’t rage," Johnson said in the radio debate. "This is not about spoiling the land, this is about protecting it, making it healthier so that all Utahans have better access."

The issue is one Herbert has directly addressed, signing a bill in 2012 demanding that the federal government relinquish 31 million acres of public land in the state by 2014. No such transfer has occurred to date.

"We need a paradigm change when it comes to public lands management," Herbert said at the time he signed the bill. "The federal government retaining control of two-thirds of our landmass was never in the bargain when we became a state, and it is indefensible 116 years later."

A state commission on public lands last week urged Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a complaint on the issue, although the matter could also go to a district court (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9).

Johnson has similarly endorsed litigation to secure the public lands, speaking at campaign events and in interviews with state media.

Following the state commission’s recommendation last week, Herbert told Salt Lake City Fox News affiliate KSTU that he did not want to "go to court," adding: "I’m hopeful we can negotiate rational outcomes."

Herbert has said that he would favor other options to turn over control of those public lands, pointing to the Utah Public Lands Initiative pursued by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, both Utah Republicans (Greenwire, Nov. 13).

"I think that’s a better way to do it," Herbert said. "But certainly litigation is a part of the possibilities we have to resolve differences of opinion."

University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said the state’s looming fight with the federal government and delay in its effort to seize the public lands is unlikely to mar Herbert’s reputation among voters.

"The governor is not being hurt by this at all. The governor is perceived by elements on the right wing as being too moderate, but the right wing just hasn’t been able to find anything they can really criticize him for," Chambless said.

Two shots

Chambless noted that in his bid to unseat Herbert, Johnson has put together a respectable campaign staff that includes former Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen, who has advised both Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Mia Love, and can rely on his own funds for the campaign.

But Herbert’s popularly remains a nearly insurmountable challenge, particularly given the relatively short three-month window until delegates are selected for the state’s April nominating conventions.

"He’s got money, and he’s got an excellent campaign strategist, but Jonathan Johnson doesn’t have the name recognition with Utah voters, and he’s challenging a very popular incumbent governor who’s got excellent name recognition and also a great deal of money to spend," Chambless said.

He added: "Could Jonathan Johnson win? It’s possible. Is it likely? No."

Nonetheless, thanks to Utah’s unusual election structure, Johnson will get two tries to take on Herbert next year.

Traditionally, Utah voters decided their primary contests at intraparty conventions. A candidate could win a spot on the general election ballot if he or she received 60 percent of the vote at a party convention. If no candidate could claim 60 percent, a primary contest would decide the general election nominee.

But the state adopted new rules in 2014 aimed at broadening the pool of voters selecting nominees.

In addition to the intraparty convention, a candidate can now also seek a spot on the primary ballot via petition. A candidate would need 28,000 signatures to qualify for the primary ballot and force a contest.

Johnson is expected to challenge Herbert at the GOP convention in April — an event that typically attracts the party’s more conservative wing — as well as with a nominating petition for the June 28 primary.

Air, water issues

In the meantime, Johnson must also seek to distinguish himself from Herbert, even as he offers support for many of the same ideas the governor has endorsed.

In addition to the push to seize public lands for the state, Johnson’s campaign names air quality and water conservation among his top concerns.

On his website, Johnson calls on the state to be "better stewards of our water supply," as well as endorsing measures to improve air quality and reduce pollution in the Beehive State.

"Our valleys’ air has a natural tendency to quickly become over polluted increasing health problems and costs while decreasing our overall quality of life," Johnson’s campaign website says. "Everyone along the Wasatch front shares the same air and responsibility to improve the conditions. To do this Utah should consider implementing tier three fuel standards, drastically cutting vehicle emissions, which accounts for the majority of the pollution in our state."

In a 2013 op-ed in the Salt Lake City Deseret News, Johnson similarly called for expanding compressed natural gas facilities and vehicle use in the state.

"We must encourage the behaviors that will protect the unsurpassed natural beauty of our state. We should drive less. We should drive cleaner," he wrote.

But Herbert has similarly endorsed clean air policies.

Although coal remains the major source of energy and a key economic industry for the state — and Herbert has opposed the Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing carbon emissions — the governor has nonetheless endorsed other policies aimed at curbing the state’s air pollution. and publicly endorsed U.S. EPA’s strengthened fuel and vehicle standards rolled out in 2014.

"As the technology already exists to do something about it, there is absolutely no reason to wait. Expediting this transition will be one of the most significant and effective ways we can immediately take to clean our air," Herbert said at that time, according to the Deseret News.

Herbert has also pursued water conservation in the state, directing the creation of a 50-year water strategy plan, as well as setting a goal of reducing water usage by 25 percent by 2025.

"Water is one of the state’s most critical resources," Herbert said in June when he signed an executive order mandating water conservation effort at state agencies, including restrictions on watering landscaping and installation of low-flow fixtures.

He added: "It is clear we need to do everything we can to conserve our water supply, and that includes the state government. We have an obligation to lead by example."

Another issue that may set Johnson apart is his view, asserted in a speech to the United Precious Metals Association in October, that he expects a "banking holiday" stemming from a financial crisis in the near future.

Johnson revealed that Overstock.com has prepared for those expectations by setting aside "$10 million in gold and silver in denominations small enough" to continue to pay its workers. The company also has a three-month supply of food for each of its workers plus a spouse, he said, explaining that the provisions include items normally for sale on the website.