By: Bryan Schott
Successful write-in campaigns are exceedingly rare. It takes a massive effort to inform voters that a candidate is running, then voters must remember their name and then write it on the ballot. Steve Handy, who lost the Republican nomination to Trevor Lee in March, is hoping he will be able to buck the odds with his write-in campaign.
“This is the hardest way to run a campaign,” Handy acknowledged when announcing his write-in bid on Tuesday.
Handy points to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won a write-in campaign in 2010 after losing the GOP nomination to Joe Miller. Murkowski was only the second person to win election to the U.S. Senate via write-in. Strom Thurmond accomplished the feat in 1954.
In Utah, a successful write-in campaign for the Legislature has happened just once. In 1970, Charles “Chic” Bullen ousted former Utah House Speaker Franklin Gunnell. Both Bullen and Gunnell were Republicans, but Gunnell had grown deeply unpopular among members of his party. Democrats and Republicans joined together in Cache County to get Bullen on the ballot by petition and helped him win. Bullen served in the Utah House until 1976 and in the Utah Senate from 1977 to 1984. Bullen died in 2009.
While the odds are against Handy, some factors may work in his favor.
Handy is the incumbent and won each of his last five elections with at least 62 percent of the vote, so voters will at least be familiar with him, assuming they pay attention to who represents them in the Legislature. On the other hand, Lee is relatively new to the district, having moved to Layton last April.
Handy’s status as an incumbent will be a significant advantage in fundraising, giving him access to donors and other lawmakers who want to help. Handy has already raised nearly $50,000 for his write-in bid. That includes a pair of $10,000 donations from former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn and Education First Utah.
Fundraising nearly derailed Handy’s write-in effort before it started. Eagle-eyed political observers noted Handy did not file a mandatory pre-primary campaign disclosure, an offense that often leads to disqualification. The Utah Lieutenant Governor’s office said Handy was in the clear, though, since he wasn’t a candidate in the June primary election. Now he is a candidate again, Handy will have to meet all campaign finance deadlines in the future.
Aside from Lee, the only other candidate on the ballot is Libertarian nominee Brent Zimmerman. BYU political scientist Adam Brown says that could work in Handy’s favor.
“He can attempt to build a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, which is much easier than trying to break through in a three-way race,” Brown says.
Brown also points to Utah getting rid of the straight-ticket option on ballots in 2020.
“People who might otherwise have forgotten to write in Handy’s name by just filling in the bubble next to the elephant can’t do that now,” Brown said. “They will have to look at Trevor Lee’s name on the ballot and fill in the bubble next to it, which may remind them of mailers they’ve received encouraging them not to.”
Handy could make a compelling case for his write-in effort by arguing that party conventions are unrepresentative of the general electorate. Lee needed just 59 votes to snatch the GOP nomination away from Handy at the Davis County GOP convention. That’s just 0.003 percent of the 18,500 registered voters and 0.005 percent of all Republicans in House District 16.
Handy, who did not gather signatures to guarantee a spot in the primary election, says he doesn’t want to turn the election into a referendum on Utah’s caucus and convention system. Still, he understands the frustration felt by many voters.
“So many people did not participate in the caucus meetings this year. My opposition didn’t do anything wrong; they just did it better than me. So what do you do? Many of the voters I’ve been talking to said they wanted a chance to vote, and we’re going to give them an opportunity to do that,” Handy said.
Those factors may suggest Handy has a fighting chance to become only the second successful write-in candidate for the Utah Legislature. But Brown says there is one giant obstacle in his way — the absence of his name on the ballot.
“Write-in candidates start with a severe disadvantage. Mounting a successful write-in campaign requires a receptive electorate and the resources and opportunity to reach them with your message in hopes they’ll remember to actively write in your name. This is the rare write-in race where I would not instinctively bet against success,” Brown said.