SALT LAKE CITY — A third of likely Utah voters would choose former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as their next governor, according to a new Salt Lake Chamber poll released Wednesday that also gave Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox the edge among Republican voters.
The poll showed 33% of likely voters would vote for Huntsman if the election were held today, compared to 26% for Cox. Among just GOP voters, Cox led Huntsman, 34% to 30%. Other candidates were in the single digits and the poll did not include Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who got in the race Wednesday.
Huntsman, who recently returned from Moscow after serving two years as President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Russia, told the Deseret News Tuesday he expects to announce his decision on running for a third term as governor the second week of November.
He was first elected governor in 2004 and stepped down shortly after winning a second term to become U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama, and later, to run for president in 2012. Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, took over as governor in 2009 and is not seeking reelection next year.
Cox was the first candidate to announce a run for governor in 2020. The only other candidate officially in the race at the time of the polling was businessman Jeff Burningham, who polled at 2% among both likely and likely GOP voters. So did former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has already raised some $500,000 for a run.
Faring better was former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, at 4% among all likely voters and 7% among GOP voters. Businessman Spencer Eccles, who headed Herbert’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development, was at 5% among likely voters and 3% among Republican voters.
In Utah, voters must register as Republicans to vote in a Republican primary election. A Democratic candidate for governor has yet to emerge, but Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, hasn’t elected a Democrat to the state’s top spot since the 1980s.
In a head-to-head matchup between Huntsman and Cox, Huntsman topped Cox, 54% to 46% among all voters — as well as by bigger margins among Democratic and unaffiliated voters. But Huntsman trailed Cox among Republican voters, 45% to 55%.
Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, was pleased with the numbers.
“We are very encouraged that Utah Republicans approved of Spencer’s leadership as lieutenant governor and support his vision for the future. Primary voters appreciate that the lieutenant governor is the only candidate to visit al 248 cities and towns across Utah’s 29 counties and that his campaign is focused on bringing communities together, not attacking opponents,” Austin Cox said.
He said the lieutenant governor will “continue to work for every vote ahead of the June (primary) election.”
Wright said he is “humbled and grateful that I have such high support without having even entered the race. This poll shows that the two GOP candidates with what is currently the highest name ID are barely at 30% among GOP voters. That means the race for the Republican nomination is wide open.”
Currently Utah’s Republican national committeeman, Wright said he is still looking at the race but should he get in, “I’m confident I will do very well among those who will decide the election — conservative Republican caucus attendees and primary voters.”
Burningham’s campaign manager, Adrielle Herring, also said the race is wide open.
“Jeff isn’t a career politician and is out there every day introducing himself to the voters. And the voters are responding to Jeff’s business experience and his plan to keep Utah prosperous without sacrificing our proud way of life,” Herring said.
His field director, Jordan Hess, said the campaign is “laying the groundwork for a victory in June and our organization is second to none,” making 125,000 phone calls, hosting a thousand people at launch parties and attracting more than 400,000 views of an announcement video.
Hughes’ campaign adviser, Greg Hartley, dismissed the results.
“Greg Hughes is focused on raising money without spending money. He is not an elected official, is not an announced candidate, has not done any campaigning, and most importantly, doesn’t have a monthly burn rate,” Hartley said, referring to spending more money than is taken in.
“Any poll that’s done this early means nothing more than name ID,” he said.
Winder Newton, who was not included in the polling on the governor’s race, said she “absolutely believes” she can compete with the other candidates.
“There’s eight months left of this Republican primary, so plenty of time to get out among the communities to get to know people and to make sure that our message is heard,” she said.
Nearly a quarter of voters said they didn’t know yet who they would vote for in the governor’s race, 21% of all likely votes and 22% of Republican voters. Those numbers nearly doubled when voters were asked who they were least likely to vote for in the governor’s race.
Huntsman was ahead of the other candidates on that question, with 15% of all voters and 18% of Republican voters putting him at the bottom of their list. Eight percent of likely voters and 6% of Republican voters said the same for Cox, and both Hughes and Burningham were in the double-digits among some voters as their last choice.
The “Utah Outlook Taking the Pulse of Our Community” poll, a quarterly survey of Utahns aimed at helping the business community understand the electorate, also measured the favorability of various political leaders. Huntsman tied with Herbert for the highest rating, 68%, while Cox was at 48%.
Eccles was viewed favorably by 23% of voters; Hughes, by 19%; Winder Newton, by 15%; and Wright, by 11%. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is not running again for Congress but is considering getting into the governor’s race, had a 39% favorability rating.
The poll was conducted for the chamber by Dan Jones & Associates Oct. 3-10 of 600 likely voters around the state and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The sample size for Republican voters was 271, and the margin of error for those results is plus or minus 5.96 percentage points.
The chamber said in a statement it was encouraged by how the poll complements efforts “to provide quarterly insight concerning economics and policy relevant to our members, government leaders, and all who may be interested” and that it will “provide a fluid view of what Utahns are thinking and feeling in a way that encourages responsive discourse and engagement.”
The last chamber poll, released in July, gave Cox a slight edge over Huntsman among all voters, 33% to 32%, and an even bigger lead among Republican voters, 41% for Cox to 25% for Huntsman.