The two Republican candidates for Utah Attorney General both gathered at home with their families rather than hosting watch parties as they waited for preliminary results of Tuesday’s primary election to be released.
That might have been one of the few things incumbent Sean Reyes and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt agreed on during a somewhat acrimonious campaign in which the candidates sparred over the use of plea bargains, the fight against human trafficking in Utah, and how to wield authority over county attorneys statewide, among other things.
Preliminary results released by the state elections office at 10:22 p.m. Tuesday showed a close race between the two candidates but with Reyes having a small lead.
The first batch of results showed Reyes having 199,604 votes, 54.5%, while Leavitt had 166,835 votes, 45.5%.
Elections officials said it would take days or weeks for close races to be called.
"These are early results but we are very pleased with these numbers," Reyes said in a written statement. "We hope to increase our lead over the coming days."
Reyes added, "My family has been my inspiration, including my dad, who we lost during this campaign."
"Our campaign was enthused by the momentum and support that built all the way to election day," Leavitt said in a written statement. "As we continue watching the results, we know our message of reforming Utah's criminal justice system resonated with voters and that the discussion and awareness will continue to develop as we strive to make the criminal justice system serve our state better. We look forward to the final result."
Since taking office as the state’s top prosecutor in December 2013, Reyes has garnered attention for his role in human trafficking sting operations in Colombia.
“Every single child that we save makes a difference,” Reyes said during a Women of the Mountains Conference at Utah Valley University in 2015.
Leavitt, who was elected to lead the Utah County Attorney’s Office in 2018 and assumed office in January 2019, criticized Reyes during a June 2 debate for focusing on human rights issues that are serious problems in other regions, but less so in Utah.
“Unfortunately, most of Mr. Reyes’ work on human trafficking has been outside the state,” Leavitt said. “It’s a huge problem in Colombia, it’s a huge problem in Ecuador, it’s a huge problem in Central America.”
Leavitt, who has advocated for criminal justice reform through a legal shift away from reliance on plea bargains as an alternative to jury trials, added that “there’s a form of human trafficking occurring in Utah for which the Attorney General gives no audience. 90% of people in our jails are not violent criminals. Every time we put someone in jail when they should be dealt with differently, that’s a form of human trafficking.”
Reyes dismissed Leavitt’s disdain for plea bargains and ambition to make jury trials more common in Utah’s criminal justice system as unrealistic.
“There’s no way … that we can fund my opponent’s idea of taking every case to trial,” Reyes said in the June 2 debate. “So even if it was constitutionally necessary, which it isn’t, it’s so economically out of the realm of reality.”
If elected as Utah’s attorney general, Leavitt has said he would exercise supervisory powers over county attorneys to ensure criminal justice is consistent across the state.
That prompted Reyes to call Leavitt an “emperor” who wanted to “tell and dictate to the county attorneys what they could do.”
Both Utah County and state election officials estimate that, as a result of changes to the election process in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it will take days or weeks for winners in close races to be determined.
Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said election officials expected to release results periodically throughout a three-week canvassing period.
That left both candidates enjoying time at home on Tuesday awaiting the first results to roll in.
Lee Rech, campaign spokesman for incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes, told the Daily Herald on Tuesday that the candidate would be “spending tonight with family.”
It was the same situation for his opponent in the GOP primary, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.
“Mr. Leavitt will be home waiting for the 10 p.m. ballot release, playing some video games with his son and spending time with his wife and family,” spokeswoman Sherrie Hall Everett said. “No watch parties are planned and our campaign will be observing the COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing as we see statewide cases continue to rise.”
The eventual winner of Tuesday’s hotly contested primary will compete against Salt Lake-based attorneys Greg Skordas, the Democratic candidate, and Rudy Bautista, the Libertarian candidate.