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Source: Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. not ruling out another run for Utah governor

FILE - Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., United States ambassador to Russia, speaks at a ceremonial swearing-in at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Huntsman could be a candidate for governor in 2020.
FILE - Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., United States ambassador to Russia, speaks at a ceremonial swearing-in at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Huntsman could be a candidate for governor in 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor currently serving as President Donald Trump's ambassador to Russia, could be a candidate for governor in 2020.

A source told the Deseret News that Huntsman has not ruled out what would be his third run for Utah governor after winning the office in 2004 and being re-elected in 2008.

Huntsman, who will mark two years in Moscow this fall, had no comment about a possible run for governor, saying there is "nothing to consider until our current commitment is done."

He left a previous ambassador posting to China under President Barack Obama after less than two years in 2011 to run for president. Huntsman had resigned during his second term as governor to take the position with the Democratic administration.

When Huntsman stepped down as governor, then-Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert assumed the state's top elected office. Herbert has won elections for the remainder of Huntsman's term as well as for two full four-year terms.

Herbert, who is not expected to run again next year, declined to comment on a possible Huntsman candidacy. A number of Republicans are already eyeing what would be an open seat for the first time in 15 years.

The list of potential GOP gubernatorial candidates includes Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Josh Romney, the son of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Cox, who is Herbert's second lieutenant governor, said he is grateful for Huntsman's service to Utah and the nation.

"In fact, I personally owe him a debt of gratitude," Cox said. "If he didn't resign early, it's very unlikely I would later get a chance to serve as lieutenant governor with Gov. Herbert."

Cox said he believes "having more choices for governor is good for Utah. When the time is right, my family and I will make a decision and we wish former Gov. Huntsman and his family the very best on whatever they decide."

Hughes did not respond to a request for comment. Both Chaffetz, who became a Fox News contributor after resigning from Congress in 2017, and Josh Romney declined to talk about Huntsman.

There's no question an entry into the race by Huntsman would shake up the GOP field.

"If he were to run again it would be a major earthquake in the gubernatorial landscape," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, "a surprising and very consequential change."

Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said if Huntsman "decides to come back to Utah and run for governor, it will have an immediate and significant impact on this race and who decides to run."

Perry, who has been a chief of staff to Herbert, said Huntsman would be a front-runner in the race after leaving Utah "as a very popular governor. His experience has only increased since then."

Because of that experience in high-profile international positions under two administrations, Perry said Huntsman has something unique to offer voters in the upcoming election.

"What we know is he does love the state of Utah," Perry said. "If he did have an interest in getting in this race, it would be to promote the state of Utah. And he would take his world view into that office."

For the past decade, Huntsman has lived in Beijing; Washington, D.C.; and Moscow, something Karpowitz said might be used against him by his opponents in a race for governor to suggest he's no longer aware of the challenges faced by Utahns.

"His attentions and concerns have been elsewhere," Karpowitz said.

But he said there's little chance any candidate in the race would be able "to match his experience in national and international politics, and so I'm sure he will have arguments about how that experience could pay off for the state of Utah."

Especially since he held key roles in such politically diverse administrations.

"There aren't many people in that category. I certainly didn't expect that he saw his future back in Utah politics again. On the other hand, he was seen as very effective as governor and was very popular," Karpowitz said.

Since Huntsman became U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2017, he lost his father, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. Last year, Huntsman Jr. revealed to the Deseret Newshe had been diagnosed with stage 1 skin cancer.

Also, he was suspected of writing an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times in September 2018 that was highly critical of Trump, something Huntsman made a point of officiallydenying in a statement from the embassy in Moscow.

There has long been speculation that Huntsman's ultimate political goal is to be named U.S. secretary of state, a post he has reportedly been considered for in the past in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

A run for Utah governor "certainly keeps his name in the political conversation," Karpowitz said. But he said that may have to wait until someone else is in the White House, "another Republican down the road or even the right Democrat."