Incumbent Utah Gov. Spencer Cox holds a significant lead over his Republican primary challengers, according to a new poll.

With six months remaining until GOP primary voters mark their ballots, the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Cox ahead of his lesser-known competitors by a 45% margin.

When asked how they would vote if the Republican primary for Utah governor were held today, 50% of registered Republican voters say they would support Cox.

Remaining GOP voters are split, with 37% saying they are undecided at this early stage in the 2024 election cycle, and 14% who choose one of Cox’s opponents.

Utah state Rep. Phil Lyman, who was the first challenger to announce his gubernatorial ambitions, has the support of 3% of Utah Republicans, as does former state GOP chair Carson Jorgensen and Bountiful business owner Sylvia Miera-Fisk, according to the poll, with Marine Corps artillery officer Scott Robbins receiving 5%.

These results fall within or near the 4.74% margin of error for the poll, which was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates from Jan. 16-21 among 428 registered Utah Republican voters.

Unlike his first gubernatorial run in 2020, when Lt. Gov. Cox eked out a narrow win over well-known adversaries, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Cox now enjoys the benefit of incumbency, which may have kept other high profile challengers “at bay,” according to Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“I think what you can take from this poll is that Gov. Cox has a commanding lead,” Perry said. “With all other challengers in the low single digits, it shows that he’s in a very strong position.”

Cox entered office in 2021 after serving as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Gary Herbert for just over seven years. He confirmed his intentions to seek reelection last spring, but said he would not aspire for a third term. Utah does not have a term limit on the office of governor.

In a written statement, Cox’s reelection campaign said the poll results showed support for the governor’s track record from his first three years on the job.

“This poll demonstrates what Utahns already know,” said Matt Lusty, Cox’s campaign spokesperson. “They want a conservative leader who will work hard to find solutions on the issues they care about — fiscal responsibility, economic success, and solving our state’s housing affordability issues. That’s Gov. Cox.”

Achievements Cox often touts, and that are likely to be central to his 2024 reelection effort, include presiding over a record $1 billion in tax cuts, an education package that paired $8,000 school vouchers with a pay raise for public school teachers, and legislation regulating social media use for minors.

Increasing the supply of starter homes and revamping the state’s approach to homelessness have been priorities for Cox going into the 2024 legislative session.

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Is Gov. Cox popular among all Utah voters?

Despite occasionally finding himself in the crosshairs from the political left and right, Cox’s “popularity since he has taken office has continued to be quite stable,” Perry said.

While Cox’s favorability numbers remain in the green, they have come down from their 2022 and 2023 levels, according to the Deseret News’ poll.

Over half of Utah voters, 55%, have a favorable opinion of Cox, the poll found, while 29% have an unfavorable opinion of the governor and 16% say they don’t know. This question was polled among 801 Utah registered voters, including members of both major political parties and unaffiliated individuals, and has a margin of error +/- 3.02%.

Over the last two years, Deseret News polls asking about Cox’s approval rating — not favorability — have shown the governor hovering around 64%, with around 30% of Utah voters disapproving of his performance in office.

Cox’s dip in favorability, if compared with past polls asking about job approval, could be a result of partisans taking a more critical look at the governor during an election year after challengers have already filed for candidacy, Perry said. But even then, Perry added, Cox has shown remarkable resilience among Utahns across the political spectrum.

Cox enjoys a favorable perception among 61% of those who identify as very conservative, 67% of those who identify as somewhat conservative, 57% of those who identify as moderates, 39% of those who identify as somewhat liberal and 31% of those who identify as very liberal, according to the poll.

This widespread support comes after a year spent in the national spotlight for Cox. As chair of the National Governors Association, Utah’s governor has spearheaded a “Disagree Better” initiative in an attempt to counter toxic polarization around the country with improved dialogue, for which he has been featured by the Atlantic and CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

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“He has taken on a more national profile,” Perry said. “And one of his platforms has been this ‘Disagree Better’ campaign which resonates well among people from all political ideologies and I think that has been giving him a boost because I think many believe that that is a conversation worth having.”

But such broad appeal has opened Cox up to attacks from challengers who “are mostly running to the right of him,” Perry said.

What did Cox’s challengers say about his favorability rating?

Lyman became the first to officially announce a campaign to unseat Cox in October, arguing that Cox had not taken a firm enough stance to safeguard the state’s conservative values.

In response to the poll results about the GOP primary campaign and Cox’s favorability, Lyman said his own “strong momentum” among “the grassroots” was not reflected in the governor’s campaign.

“With 10 years to build his popularity with Utah voters, we’re encouraged that the current governor is barely earning support from half of Republican voters,” Lyman said. “We’re confident this will translate into a strong primary challenge, and we’re looking forward to a competitive race.”

Jorgensen, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in 2020, has criticized Cox from the standpoint of fiscal restraint, saying the budget has grown too much under the current administration.

Upon reviewing the poll results, Jorgensen tempered expectations about early polling and said he was “extremely” encouraged by what he perceived to be Republican’s open mind toward an alternative.

“We are exactly where we would expect to be at this very early stage. However, those are not typical numbers for an incumbent Republican governor in Utah,” Jorgensen’s campaign said in a written statement.

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This angle was repeated by Miera-Fisk, who ran for state GOP chair in 2019.

“Cox’s numbers show only tepid support for his reelection,” she said in a statement to the Deseret News. “We believe his numbers will drop well below 50% as this race progresses. Cox has taken Utah in a direction most Utahns do not want to go. I can win this race and I look forward to earning the support of voters across Utah!”

Robbins, who is new to Utah politics, said he is running to address what he sees as a lack of strong leadership in the state.

“I already got 5% and nobody knows about me yet,” Robbins said. “Republicans aren’t that happy with Spencer Cox. ... We need a leader that leads, not waits for what he can get away with from our enemies.”

As the election season heats up, expect to see voters begin to process information increasingly through “political filters” and candidates begin to be “hypersensitive to where their base wants them to be,” Perry said.

Cox may have already begun to shift gears to “approach the issues in a way that appeals to those kinds of voters,” Perry said, pointing to the governor’s endorsement of bills touching on controversial “social issues.”

On Tuesday, Cox signed some of the first bills to pass in this year’s legislative session. One, HB257, restricts individuals from using public bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t align with their sex at birth, and another, HB261, will overhaul state-sponsored diversity, equity and inclusion programs to open up access to all individuals in need of special resources.

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