SALT LAKE CITY — Just like the Republican gubernatorial primary election more than three months ago, the race between GOP Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson to become Utah’s next governor has been all about the coronavirus pandemic.

But the general election campaign to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who chose not to seek another term after more than a decade in office, has been decidedly more low key in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.

Cox’s narrow victory over former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — and much bigger win over the other two candidates in the June 30 primary, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — came after a high-profile campaign that cost millions of dollars.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at a backyard event in Farmington on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The lieutenant governor alone spent close to $2 million by late June, and still had more than $538,000 in cash on hand at that point. He’s since raised about $887,000 more through Sept. 30 and, after spending another $924,000, reported more than $500,000 available in his most recent state financial disclosure.

Peterson, a University of Utah law professor who secured the Democratic nomination at his party’s state convention in April, had less than $20,000 in campaign cash as of late June. He had added around $70,000 in contributions as of Sept. 30 with a little over $54,000 in cash on hand, according to his latest state disclosure.

With such a substantial money advantage and historical precedent on his side, Cox was confident enough to take a break from campaigning after the primary until after Labor Day in early September. First-time candidate Peterson, however, kept up his call for more action against COVID-19, including a statewide mask mandate.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson poses for a photo after touring the Utah Electrical Training Alliance building in West Jordan on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. The alliance provides training for the members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 354, and the National Electrical Contractors Association, Intermountain Chapter. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Whether Cox, who was harshly criticized in the primary for initially leading the administration’s response to the pandemic, would have made the same decision as Herbert not to issue a statewide mask mandate as cases spiked was a key issue during the two gubernatorial debates and the candidate forums held in September.

The lieutenant governor had said over the summer that Herbert asked him not to “get in front” of him, and then in a forum said that he had “no choice” but to back the governor on masks. Later, he said he was making a joke and that any mandates should come from local leaders.

Last week, though, Herbert imposed a new scale for measuring transmission rates and put mask requirements in place for gatherings at least through Oct. 29 for all but eight of Utah’s 29 counties. Cox, who was interviewed before the governor’s announcement, had hinted that changes were coming.

“Everything is on the table,” the lieutenant governor said, adding he was “confident” Herbert would take tougher measures to slow the virus. What has to be taken into account, Cox said, is that the Legislature has “consistently threatened to take power away from the governor as this crisis moves on. None of this is happening in a vacuum.”

Cox acknowledges the virus is the focus for voters.

“I would love to say anything but the coronavirus. But of course, it is kind of the wet blanket on everything that’s happening in 2020 right now,” he said, putting the health and safety of Utahns, as well as of the economy, at the top of the list.

Peterson has expressed frustration that his more aggressive plan for dealing with the virus that calls for increased testing and contact tracing as well as a statewide mask mandate with “reasonable exceptions,” isn’t getting more attention.

“We’ve got to get the virus under control so we can get this economy back on track. Too many Utahns are getting sick and suffering long-term health effects and even dying,” he said, calling the increase in cases a crisis. “Right now, our current coronavirus plan is not working.”

But Peterson, who worked on consumer protection issues in the Obama administration, hesitated to criticize Cox directly even as he expressed disappointment in what he termed “missteps,” such as money spent on a contact tracing app that didn’t work that needs to be recovered.

“I’ll say that the current administration has failed to craft an adequate response to this natural disaster and I believe change is in order to protect the public,” he said. Pressed about Cox’s role, Peterson said, “I don’t like being rude,” before adding that the lieutenant governor “has not demonstrated the leadership needed.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson, center, and his running mate Karina Brown talk with business manager Steve Woodman, left, and Mike Lanoue, assistant training director for the Utah Electrical Training Alliance as they tour the building in West Jordan on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. The alliance provides training for the members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 354, and the National Electrical Contractors Association, Intermountain Chapter. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The controversy raises the larger question of how much change there would really be under Cox from the current administration. Herbert, then Utah’s lieutenant governor, assumed the governorship in 2009 after Huntsman stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China, and went on to win three elections.

Cox held several local government posts in the place he still calls home, Sanpete County, and had been in the Utah Legislature just nine months when Herbert selected him to serve as lieutenant governor in 2013, replacing Greg Bell, who resigned to earn more money in the private sector.

“There will be differences and I think they are differences people will notice, if I’m fortunate to be elected governor,” Cox promised. “We haven’t had a real transition in 16 years because of the way Gov. Herbert become governor in the middle of an administration, and so quickly. He never really had the opportunity.”

He said he’s already talking to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt about advising on a transition to a Cox administration that would start with a complete review of every state agency with an eye toward restructuring of the executive branch. In 2012, Leavitt led the transition planning for the GOP presidential nominee, now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.

Peterson is hoping voters want to see more of a change at the top. The last Democrat elected governor in Utah was the late Scott Matheson, who served from 1977 to 1985. Matheson’s son, Scott Matheson Jr., was considered a serious Democratic contender for governor in 2004, but lost to Huntsman by more than 16 percentage points.

“I’m presenting a reasonable, moderate choice that will reflect Utah’s tradition, heritage and values,” said Peterson, who often mentions his pioneer roots. “The people of Utah should feel comfortable that attempting to restore the two party system in our state will be a safe and a prudent choice.”

Both candidates do share stands on some issues, such as opposing the increase on the state sales tax on food that was part of the massive tax reform package passed by the Utah Legislature late last year, then repealed amid a successful citizens initiative that would have let voters decide in November.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox talks with attendees at a backyard event in Farmington on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s one of the few issues Cox has openly opposed the governor on, and he has expressed gratitude that Herbert allowed him to do it. Cox said he and Herbert do disagree privately at times, but his job as lieutenant governor is “to go out there and support him and help implement his policies.”

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When it comes to what he calls “pocketbook issues,” Peterson points to his four years of federal experience with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Defense. “The public can be confident that I will be on their side rather than an instrument of privileged insiders or special interest lobbyists,” he said.

Asked if that’s the choice voters face in the governor’s race, Peterson said, “It’s certainly true I’ve spent my career fighting for working families, and my opponent, who is an upstanding individual but came to control and to power by working his way up through a party system. That’s a meaningful distinction.”

Cox said he’s resisted the suggestion that he doesn’t need to campaign so hard in the general election race.

“This really matters. Again, it’s 2020. We don’t take anything for granted. But also, the people deserve it. I was told by lots of people that I shouldn’t do any debates and shouldn’t do any of these joint forums. I disagreed with that,” he said. “So even though I maybe didn’t need to do it, we did it.”

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