- Associated Press - Friday, June 16, 2017

PROVO, Utah (AP) - About 800 members of Utah’s GOP on Saturday picked a former state legislator as their preferred candidate to compete in a special election to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is resigning at the end of the month.

Chaffetz’s decision to step down left an enticing open seat that attracted 12 Republicans, including state lawmakers, political activists, lawyers and others to compete in what’s considered one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country.

Chris Herrod, who won the vote of the nearly 800 GOP delegates at a convention in the city of Provo, will advance to a primary election in August, where he’ll will face two candidates who gathered voter signatures in order to get on the ballot: John Curtis, the popular mayor of Provo, and Tanner Ainge, a consulting firm owner and son of Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.

Herrod, a home loan officer in Provo, served in Utah’s Legislature for five years beginning in 2007, unsuccessfully challenged Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 and worked on Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign last year.

Herrod was one of the only candidates on Saturday to mention of an issue dominating Washington - the widening probe into Russia’s election meddling and possible ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Herrod discussed his experience teaching at universities in Ukraine in the 1990s and his familiarity with the former Soviet Union. Herrod, echoing comments he made in a debate the evening before, told the crowd that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a chess player” who has out-maneuvered the Obama administration and U.S. media.

“We need to get over accusations of collusion and get to the real issues,” Herrod said, a statement that was met with applause.

Herrod, speaking to reporters after his win, said he’s no fan of Putin’s but thinks the U.S. needs open lines of communications with Russia to tackle issues like terrorism and the war in Syria.

Herrod said that while he thinks the U.S. should investigate the Russian election meddling, he said the U.S. has tried to influence elections in other countries and there’s no allegations that Russians tampered with U.S. ballots or voting. The investigations can continue but Republicans need to get to work, he said.

When asked about whether he thinks Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey, who was leading the investigations, Herrod said he’s seen no evidence of that and thinks it’s telling that Comey didn’t report that Trump had obstructed justice.

All GOP candidates but Tanner Ainge chose to vie for the votes of Utah delegates, giving speeches on Saturday where they pledged to be champions of conservatism if elected and spoke of their admiration for former GOP President Ronald Reagan and a desire to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Despite a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, the 11 candidates spoke about a need for changes in Washington, from a revamped tax system to elected leaders who aren’t beholden to special interests.

Chaffetz, considered popular in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, received almost no mention at Saturday’s event, including comments about his surprise decision to leave office about six months after winning re-election, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. As chairman of the House Governmental Oversight Committee, Chaffetz was a determined investigator of the Obama administration and of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Only a handful of the candidates appeared to make any endorsement of Trump, who finished third in Utah’s presidential primary last year. At the time, Trump acknowledged he was having a tough time in the GOP state, where many Mormons and conservatives said they couldn’t support him because of his brash demeanor and comments about women and minorities.

The most ringing endorsement of Trump on Saturday came from candidate and political activist Debbie Aldrich, who said candidates had no business representing the district in Washington if they couldn’t back the party’s leader.

Though Herrod worked on Cruz’s presidential campaign, he voted for Trump in the general election and appeared at one of his rallies.

One candidate, American Fork lawyer Damian Kidd, criticized the other candidates for what he saw as ostentatious campaign booths and freebies they used to woo delegates. He questioned how fiscally responsible the other candidates could be after spending on extravagant booths with large slick banners, a waffle bar, a lounge area with mood lighting and plants and campaign gear like shirts and water bottles.

The August primary election, where the GOP nominee will be finalized, will be a traditional election with ballots and voting machines run by the state elections office.

Utah Democrats held their own convention on Saturday, selecting physician Kathie Allen, who will not have to compete in a primary election.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice.

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