Layton Rep. Steve Handy, who lost his reelection bid to Trevor Lee at the Davis County Republican convention in March, kicked off a long-shot write-in campaign to keep his seat in the Utah Legislature on Tuesday evening.
Handy, who has long been rumored to be mulling a write-in bid against Lee, officially announced his campaign surrounded by a crowd of family and supporters.
“I know this is the hardest kind of campaign. I trust the voters. They’re smart. If (Alaska Republican Sen.) Lisa Murkowski can win a write-in, then Steve Handy can win a write-in election,” Handy said.
Considered one of the more moderate members of the House GOP caucus, Handy did not avail himself of the ability to gather signatures to secure a spot in the primary election, giving delegates the final say on the nomination. Ninety-two delegates weighed in on the race at the convention, with 59 casting a ballot for Lee, giving him the win. There are more than 18,000 registered voters in HD16.
Several incumbents looking for nominations at March’s Davis County Republican Convention — where culture war issues were a hot topic — were challenged from their political right.
State Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, would have also been ousted at the convention by Lyle Mason had Ward not gathered signatures. In June, Ray handily defeated Mason in the primary election by nearly 20 points.
A write-in campaign will be difficult since Handy would be relying on voters to do just that — write his name on the ballot. Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann says a successful write-in campaign requires a massive amount of effort and a little bit of luck.
“It would take a very high-profile campaign, a significant amount of spending and investment and extensive voter outreach to pull it off,” Cann said.
Handy won’t have to worry about campaign cash. He said Tuesday evening he was about to deposit $50,000 into his campaign account. That’s nearly eight times the $6,400 Lee has raised for his campaign.
Handy’s status as an incumbent will give him an advantage, but redistricting could have an impact. The boundaries in HD16 shifted a bit when the Legislature redrew the political maps late last year. Most of the district remained the same but has added about 3,000 registered voters who were part of other districts in the 2020 election, according to data from L2 Data, a political data warehousing firm.
He explained that Utah is a “voter intent” state, which means elections officials have a lot of leeways when evaluating ballots.
“They have to give full consideration to the intent of a voter when determining how to count their ballot. This helps write-in candidates because if a voter misspells the candidate’s name, just lists their last name, or in similar situations where the voter’s intent is clear, the vote can still be counted for their preferred candidate. But, if the election were to be close, one should expect challenges to judgment calls on this,” Cann said.
Lee, the Davis County nominee, has already been the subject of some controversy. Shortly after winning the nomination, Lee used a slur to describe transgender people on a conservative podcast during a discussion of Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill to ban transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports.
Lee said Tuesday morning he was unconcerned about Handy’s impending reentry into the race.
“My attention is on how after I’m elected, I can help my constituents and all of Utah keep more money in their pockets and keeping their lives as deregulated as possible,” Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune via a text message.
In a subsequent statement texted to The Tribune, Lee was much more forceful in pushing back against Handy.
“My opponent can’t accept the results of the election, but the fact is Utahns are struggling with high inflation. My opponent has a record of voting to raise taxes on gas and groceries. Our district needs a representative with a fresh perspective that is focused on putting their needs ahead of special interests,” Lee said. “As the Republican Nominee for House District 16, I will continue to listen and prepare to take action on important issues to our district.”
Even though Handy is a Republican, Davis County Republican Party Chair Daniela Harding said the party will support Lee in the election.
“Our bylaws require the county party to recognize the will of the delegates and the party will continue to support our nominee, Trevor Lee, in the General Election,” Harding said in a statement.
Before Handy’s announcement, Lee faced no significant opposition in the November election, as the only other candidate on the ballot was Libertarian nominee Brent Zimmerman.