SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican Gov. Gary Herbert easily defeated Overstock.com executive Jonathan Johnson to win a closely watched primary race that helped boost voter turnout to the highest in two decades.
Herbert had about 73 percent of the vote with about half of all votes counted in Tuesday’s primary election.
Herbert told reporters he was grateful and believed voters felt he had a positive record that he could build upon for the future.
The victory sends Herbert on to face Democrat Mike Weinholz in the November general election. Herbert will be a heavy favorite since deep-red Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980.
A win in the general election would make Herbert, in office since 2009, among the state’s longest-serving governors. He says the 2016 election will be his last.
In another high-profile race, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz breezed past BYU professor Chia-Chi Teng in his bid for a fifth term in a congressional district that starts in suburban Salt Lake City and extends to the state’s southeast corner.
Chaffetz has represented Utah’s 3rd Congressional District since 2008. Teng was well-funded, but Chaffetz is a popular conservative figure who prevailed as expected.
On the Democratic side, Misty Snow, a grocery store cashier and who would be the first openly transgender woman elected in Utah if she wins the general election, was leading marriage therapist Jonathan Swinton in the race to face Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in November.
Nearly 21 percent of registered voters had cast ballots as of 6 p.m., said Mark Thomas, director of elections with the Utah Lt. Governor’s Office. The majority of those were tallied from mail-in or absentee ballots. More than two-thirds of Utah counties conducted the primary election mostly by mail.
Utah’s 2014 primary, where only a handful of legislative races and county offices were on the ballot, saw less than 13 percent voter participation.
Herbert’s victory comes after Johnson won more support from several thousand core members of Utah’s GOP at an April state convention. But Herbert brought a moderate appeal to the wider swath of primary voters and scored a key endorsement from former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who remains hugely popular in Utah.
Herbert became Utah’s governor during the Great Recession and cited the state’s now-humming economy as a reason to elect him to another four-year term.
It’s a message that resonated with voter David Zealley, who says he picked Herbert when casting his ballot by mail Saturday because he has helped the economy.
The 24-year-old from Riverton, who majors in psychology at Brigham Young University-Idaho, also said Herbert appealed to him more than Johnson because the incumbent took a more moderate stance on issues such as refugees.
Herbert last fall stopped short of joining other Republican governors who threatened to stop accepting Syrian refugees following terrorist attacks in Paris.
He ordered a security review but said he wanted to help those fleeing violence. Johnson called for Utah to stop accepting refugees.
Johnson touted his private-sector experience and criticized the governor’s approval of fuel, sales and property taxes over the years.
Johnson criticized Herbert from the right on issues such as education policy and pushing back against federal control. After Johnson’s repeated hammering of Herbert for supporting Common Core gained traction with conservatives, Herbert dropped his support of the benchmarks and called for repeal, saying controversy over Common Core wasn’t helping students.
Voter Ernie Cassler said he voted for Johnson because the libertarian-leaning candidate wants to drop Common Core education standards. The 55-year-old West Jordan banker says the teaching methods tied to benchmarks championed by the Obama administration don’t make sense.
Both candidates’ reliance on mega-donors erupted as a campaign issue in recent weeks after The Salt Lake Tribune released a recording of Herbert referring to himself as “Available Jones” while offering to meet with lobbyists for campaign donations. Herbert has said he was disappointed in himself but noted nothing unethical or illegal occurred.
A Johnson supporter filed a complaint with Utah’s elections office, asking officials to determine if Herbert’s campaign broke any election laws.
Thomas said the complaint was handed over to the state attorney general’s office, which had no comment on whether it’s investigating.
Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City and Sally Ho in Las Vegas contributed to this report.