Controversial Sen. Chris Buttars secured his party’s nomination to seek re-election this fall by the margin of a single vote.
The Republican from West Jordan faced three intraparty challengers at his party’s convention in Senate District 10 on Saturday May 3, including lead rival Gary Armstrong. After two rounds of voting, 60.2 percent of the district’s 204 delegates, thanks in part to rival Trevor Darby who urged his 28 delegates to support Buttars after losing in the first round.
Candidates need to win 60 percent of delegates’ votes to advance without having to go through a primary, in which two candidates square off for their party’s nomination.
In the second vote, however, a single spoiled ballot – where a delegate had apparently voted for both Buttars and Armstrong – could have given Armstrong 40 percent of the vote, enough to challenge Buttars in a June primary. But delegates voted to discard the ballot, securing Buttars’ nomination.
Armstrong did not challenge the move, but he did criticize delegates for supporting Buttars.
“I'm very surprised the delegates drank the Kool-Aid,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune, adding that he will support Democratic challenger John Rendell in November.
The two-term Senator’s nomination was likely a close call because of the controversy his actions and remarks have generated in this year’s legislative session. Well known for supporting several pieces of anti-gay legislation in his two terms (including a 2004 constitutional ban on gay marriage), Buttars also offended Utah’s black community. On Feb 12, Buttars said of a bill he didn’t like, “this baby is black, I tell you, it’s a dark, ugly thing” prompting criticism from fellow Senators and the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP to demand his resignation.
A few weeks later, The Salt Lake Tribune disclosed a scathing letter Buttars had sent to 4th District Judge Derek Pullan after the judge ruled against Buttars’ friend Wendell Gibby in a real estate dispute. In the letter, Buttars, the chair of the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee, questioned Pullan’s integrity and said he was “embarrassed … to have supported your appointment,” thereby prompting questions of whether or not the Senator had violated Senate ethics rules that forbid legislators from exerting “undue influence on any government entity.”
After the letter became public Senate president John Valentine, R-Orem, removed Buttars as chairman for unspecified reasons. However, Valentine allowed Buttars to stay on the committee out of fear that he would lose his Senate leadership position, according to Utah Bar Association official Scott Sabey. Valentine said he kept Buttars on the committee because chair Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, and a fellow committee member agreed that Buttars should stay.
Buttars has also come under attack from a conservative group called Citizens for Fair Taxation, which criticized the Senator’s voting record in mailers sent to residents in his district. After finding out that the group was not registered with the state – which groups involved in political campaigns must be before they can send out mailings according to Utah Law – Buttars asked the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to investigate.
“This is the same ghost PAC of the national gays,” Buttars told the Deseret News when asked if he knew who could have sent the mailers. “That was an ugly thing to do on Friday when [I] can't reply.”
Although Buttars said he worked hard for his nomination, meeting with roughly 90 percent of the district’s delegates, his popularity has waned in the past few months. In a March 24 Deseret News poll of 208 residents in Senate District 10, 67 percent of responders said they did not want Butters to be re-elected versus 23 percent who “definitely” or “probably” wanted him back. Of Republican voters polled, only 32 percent wanted to see the Senator get re-elected.
Further, a number of newspapers have said that Buttars is unworthy of support including, most recently, the Ogden Standard Examiner. In a May 2 editorial, the paper called the Senator “a smudge on Utah’s reputation” who should be “plucked out of the Senate.” It also criticized Senate leaders Valentine, Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Majority Whip Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, and Assistant Majority Whip Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, for sending delegates a letter supporting Buttars’ reelection.
The letter, which was produced on Valentine’s personal stationery and not sent at taxpayer expense, calls Buttars an “unwavering supporter of Republican principles.”
Although Senate leaders have backed Buttars, Democrat John Rendell said much of Buttars’ party feels otherwise.
“Republicans are realizing that Chris Buttars and the Republican Party no longer represent them,” said Buttars’ challenger on the blog Utah Amicus. “Two of my neighbors, both Republican delegates, came to my house after today’s primary. Both were outraged and disappointed at what had transpired at the convention. Both neighbors left supporting my campaign, Rendell for Senate lawn signs, and literature to hand out to their disenfranchised Republican friends.”
“When candidates and delegates turn their back on their party you know something is wrong,” he continued.