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Lots of intrigue and strategy in race for governor

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Jon Huntsman Jr., right, talks with Jarom Bergeson, an attorney at KKOS Lawyers, after Huntsman announced he is running for a third term as Utah’s governor in Cedar City on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Huntsman met with employees and clients at KKOS Lawyers and K&E CPAs in their offices on his first campaign stop.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

With the municipal election behind us, all eyes are on 2020 and particularly the race for Utah governor — the first truly open gubernatorial race in 28 years (since Gov. Norm Bangerter retired in 1992). The intrigue is well worth exploring.

Under Utah law, any number of candidates can win a spot on the primary ballot through the convention process or by gathering signatures — or both. With a crowded field, concern is being expressed the GOP primary winner could emerge with a relatively small percentage of the primary election vote. Is this a real problem? Will the Legislature act to fine-tune party nomination procedures?

Pignanelli: “Politics is weird. I don’t even know what that means any more.” — John Cusack   

The human body reacts well to quality nutritional inputs (i.e. vitamins, vegetables, meat, etc.). But too much of even wonderful ingredients cause stomach problems, skin lesions and other ailments. Similar ills befall political parties when too many qualified members are on the same ballot.

Multiparty democracies often provide opportunities for extreme candidates with narrow constituencies to win through low thresholds created by multiple stronger opponents. A similar situation is possible in the June GOP primary if several candidates are fielded.

Democrats and Independents changing party affiliation to vote in Republican primaries normally have nominal impact. But they could impact this unusual nomination selection. Since most will likely support a moderate, this could counter ultra conservatives.

Too much of good things are rarely beneficial (except Italian food and wine) and could affect the spring primary.

Webb: It’s likely that even with several attractive candidates, one or two will emerge as frontrunners and the top vote-getter will enjoy a solid plurality and be a strong nominee. 

With a large field, immense intrigue and strategy exists as various “lanes” to the nomination are plotted with conservative and moderate vote-splitting. Lieutenant governor choices will play into this as well. Can an archconservative become the nominee if the moderates split the vote? Will Democrats register as Republicans and skew the primary vote?

In reality, none of this has been a real problem in the past. Many states have wide-open primaries and the best candidate usually emerges. 

Still, it would be best if the Legislature created a runoff process so that if no candidate gets, say, at least 30% of the primary vote then the top two voter-getters square off in a runoff.

Pignanelli & Webb: Who are the candidates to watch in the gubernatorial race?

Spencer Cox: The lieutenant governor started early, looks good in the polls and he enjoys some impressive support. But can he maintain the momentum and withstand the onslaught of the heavy hitters?

Jon Huntsman Jr.: The recent announcement by the returning ambassador was not a surprise. With all of his assets, he has to be considered the frontrunner (who gets all the arrows). Will voters demand a promise to reject an offer for U.S. Secretary of State to finish a term?

Jeff Burningham: A majority of Utah governors have come from the outside business world. He has plenty of money. Can he build name ID and find the right message?

Greg Hughes: The hard-driving former speaker has been quiet for over a year, but has been raising money. Is there a conservative lane for him, or will he support another candidate or maybe end up as running mate to Huntsman?

Thomas Wright: The popular former state GOP chair has also been quiet, but working behind the scenes. He has the ability to unite the conservative and moderate wings of the party and will also be well-financed.

Aimee Winder Newton: The well-liked Salt Lake County Council member is a solid competitor and is the only female in the race. Can she overcome the historical disadvantage of launching from the county?

Spencer Eccles: This remarkable business leader gained respect as the director of the Governors Office of Economic Development and is well-regarded across the state. His good name and grasp of the issues would make him a strong contender. Will he run?

Rob Bishop: Worshipped by state delegates, the retiring congressman could shake up the race. But insiders don’t expect him to run.

Will the Democrats field a serious candidate?

Pignanelli: State Sen. Luz Escamilla will receive pressure but may be too exhausted after her mayoral campaign. Other legislators will be reluctant to give up their seats for a long shot. I suggest party chair and businessman Jeff Merchant, who is collecting bipartisan compliments for his style and substance. (This also alleviates the awful chore of finding someone.)

Webb: The Democrats won’t find a candidate who can win. But most Democrats like Huntsman and Cox. If they really want to have an impact on the gubernatorial election they would be wise to register as Republicans for the primary election and vote for the candidate most aligned with their ideology.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.