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In a shocking development, Jon Harper, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, abruptly dropped out of the race late Tuesday night, citing health reasons.
Harper was scheduled to debate Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes in St. George on Wednesday evening. The Utah Debate Commission, the sponsor of the debate, said that under its rules Reyes would be given the full hour to answer questions.
Harper could not be reached Wednesday morning, but his campaign manager Jill Stevens said the former candidate made the decision Tuesday night after missing a fundraising event in St. George that evening.
He informed Stevens in an email that he had sent a letter withdrawing from the race to the Utah Debate Commission and the state Democratic Party. He also included a draft of a news release announcing he was dropping out.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning by the Utah Democratic Party, Harper said he was bowing out on the advice of his doctor.
"My family and a number of friends old and new have been incredibly supportive, and I appreciate everything they have done for me," Harper said.
"I also hope the issues I have raised in this campaign will have an impact on the incumbent that he will recognize his responsibility to serve as the guardian of the public's interest and not as the attorney for his party leaders and large donors over the interests of the people; that he will shut down the money mill the attorney general's office has continued to be; and that he will do as he promised two years ago to restore openness, independence and integrity in that office."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said the party appreciated Harper's willingness to run and "bring a fresh start and independent voice" to the office.
"At the end of the day, Jon's health and family should be his first priority," Corroon said. "We support his decision and keep his family in our thoughts and prayers."
Corroon said he had talked to Harper last week about health issues Harper was dealing with, but he had assumed that the candidate was going to stay in the race and go through with the debate. Harper emailed Corroon on Tuesday night to tell him he was withdrawing.
Corroon has not spoken to Harper since, saying he's respecting the former candidate's privacy.
So far, Harper has not notified the lieutenant governor's office of his decision, so he has not officially pulled out. It is too late to remove Harper's name from the ballot, but if he formally withdraws, his votes will not be counted. He could suspend his campaign and not officially withdraw and whatever votes he receives would be counted. The Aug. 30 deadline for the party to replace him on the ballot is passed.
"We would prefer he stay in the race. His name is going to be on the ballot regardless," Corroon said. "It's not good to have a candidate get out of the race. … Politics is a team sport, so we lose one of our candidates, it affects all the other races."
Libertarian candidate Andrew McCullough was driving to St. George on Wednesday, hoping for a chance to debate Reyes, even though he missed the threshold of support needed to qualify to be on the stage. Candidates needed to register 5.6 percent a 10 percent threshold minus a 4.4 percent margin of error and McCullough polled at 5.3 percent.
"I suspect they'll tell us no," McCullough said, "but it's a disaster for them if they just put [Reyes] up there all by himself. It's just dumb."
Indeed, Nena Slighting, an organizer of the debate, said it would be unfair to other candidates to change the rules and let McCullough participate.
McCullough still plans to put up lawn signs and meet voters outside the venue.
Harper's stunning announcement changes the complexion of the race, McCullough said, and the Libertarian plans to double or triple the amount of time he's spending campaigning, hoping he can upset the incumbent attorney general.
"By golly, this is a surprise," McCullough said. "I thought we should at least be considering that possibility [of winning] now, and that's when I started hyperventilating."
Harper had been trailing Reyes by a large margin 43 points according to a new poll by UtahPolicy.com.
Harper has been an attorney for 37 years, frequently representing clients who sue corporations. He spent eight years as an associate dean at the University of Utah College of Law.
In addition to McCullough, Reyes is challenged by Michael Isbell of the Independent American Party.