SALT LAKE CITY — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will be the main event at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit on Friday, but the undercard features six Republicans battling to be Utah’s next governor.
Jeff Burningham, Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes, Jon Huntsman Jr., Aimee Winder Newton and Thomas Wright will take the Salt Lake Palace Convention Center stage for the first debate in the 2020 gubernatorial race. The summit invited only candidates who have raised at least $50,000 in their campaigns.
As the six enter the ring, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows two of them leading the rest of the field by a wide margin, though a quarter of those surveyed aren’t sure who they would vote for.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador, captured 33% of Republicans who say they are very likely to vote in the GOP primary election. Cox, the lieutenant governor, followed with 25%. All of the other candidates were in single digits, none higher than Burningham’s 5%.
Abby Huntsman, Huntsman campaign spokeswoman, said polls represent a snapshot of a moment in time and the numbers are encouraging. “There’s always more work to do and we look forward to telling more Utahns about his vision for the future of our great state,” she said.
The Cox campaign says it’s pleased with where it’s at and will continue to build on its grassroots support across the state.
“We are confident that Utah Republicans are looking for a consistent conservative and will increasingly look to Spencer as that candidate,” said Cox campaign spokeswoman Heather Barney.
What sets the poll apart from other recent surveys in the governor’s race is the inclusion of non-Republicans who say they will change their voter registration to participate in the GOP primary election. Only registered Republicans may vote in the June 30 GOP primary.
In that scenario, Huntsman got a slight bump to 35%, while Cox remained at 25%. Burningham, a Utah businessman, inched up 1 percentage point as did Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County councilwoman, to 3%.
Hughes, the former Utah House speaker and Wright, the former Utah GOP chairman, came in at 3% among Republicans and when non-Republicans were included.
“This is significant because it drills down to people who are likely to show up for the primary and vote. That category of unaffiliated voters is quite significant in this election, not just for the primary but as we go forward to the general election,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
New York-based pollster Scott Rasmussen surveyed 319 Utah Republicans very likely to vote in the GOP primary and 105 non-Republicans who say they will change registration to vote in the primary. The poll was conducted Jan. 15-22 and has a margin of error or plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.
“Fresh” appears as the word of the day for some of the candidates trying to replace Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.
While Burningham emerged as the third choice, his campaign expects Huntsman and Cox to decline as he rises. Burningham said the state is ready for a “politically unentangled leader.”
“As I’ve travelled all across the state, I’ve learned that Utahns are ready for a fresh perspective. Other states across the country have elected governors from the business world who bring a new way of thinking to government,” he said.
Winder Newton said she, too, offers a new outlook.
“As Aimee travels the state she hears the same refrain: Republicans are ready for something a little different in the governor’s office — someone who can bring a fresh perspective to state government, but still has the experience and policy background,” said Danny Laub, campaign spokesman.
Wright, who has already tabbed retiring GOP Congressman Rob Bishop as his running mate, said the last several polls have shown a large number of undecided voters.
“For us to have four former or current elected officials in the race and still have so many Utah Republicans undecided tells me that Utahns aren’t satisfied with current or past leadership. They’re ready for a change. My campaign is new, and I’ve got fresh ideas to share,” he said.
Hughes has spent the past three weeks meeting face to face with voters from across the state, said campaign manager Greg Hartley.
“What has become clear from those conversations is that this race is wide open. Any poll this early in a campaign showing less than 40% to 50% undecided doesn’t tell the full story,” he said.
The GOP primary ballot will likely be a crowded one. Five of the six Republicans in the race filed to gather 28,000 voter signatures to qualify under Utah’s dual track nomination system. Only Hughes opted to take only the traditional caucus and convention route.
Utah has not elected a Democratic governor since 1980, often making the Republican primary the de facto general election. So far, two relative unknown Democrats, Zachary Moses and Nikki Pino, have signed up to gather signatures to get on the ballot.
“This the game to watch now politically,” Perry said. “That primary is absolutely critical for these candidates. It would be wise for all these candidates to pay attention to those who may affiliate on the day of the primary, and there are a lot of unaffiliated voters in the state of Utah.”
Because of the strong slate of GOP candidates, the election will be about policies and positions rather than just name identification, he said.