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Utah candidates for governor team up to promote civility in politics

New public service campaign says state can be example for nation

Utah Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson, left, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, right, released a video promoting civility on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson, his Democrat opponent in the governor’s race, appeared together in a public service announcement Tuesday promoting civility in politics, saying Utah can set an example for the rest of the country in a divisive election year.

They also have produced spots encouraging Utahns to accept the outcome of the presidential election, aimed at President Donald Trump’s reluctance to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in his reelection bid against Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I’m not sure this has ever been done before ... but as our national political dialogue continues to decline, my opponent @PetersonUtah and I decided to try something different. We can disagree without hating each other. Let’s make Utah an example to the nation,” Cox tweeted, adding the hashtag, #StandUnited.

Their effort is receiving national attention. Cox and Peterson appeared on CNN Tuesday night, where host Don Lemon said, “It kind of makes you want to elect both of them, right?” after playing one of the spots, which he said have already received over a million views online.

“Most Americans are yearning for some sense of normalcy,” Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, told Lemon. He said, “To see two candidates who stridently disagree with each other about policy come together to try to have a positive message about civility and respect for our democratic institutions is refreshing for people.”

Cox answered “all of the above” when asked if they were trying to set a good example for Utahns, Americans or the president. “That’s the hope. I believe that our politicians are a reflection of us. ... If we’re expecting politicians in D.C. to show us how to do things better, then we’re going to be very disappointed. It really is on all of us.”

Lemon ended the segment by saying, “I love what both of you are doing. Thank you for bringing civility into this process.”

In the 30-second spot initially posted on Twitter by the lieutenant governor, who oversees state elections, the candidates stand in front of a plain white background wearing buttons identifying their political party and acknowledge they’re still competing for votes in the Utah governor’s race.

Then Cox says, “There are some things we both agree on,” and Peterson adds, “We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character.” Cox elaborates: “We can disagree without hating each other,” followed by Peterson summing up: “Win or lose, in Utah we work together.”

In two other spots, the Utah gubernatorial candidates agree that they will support the results of the presidential race.

“Although we sit on different sides of the aisle, we are both committed to American civility and a peaceful transition of power,” Cox says in one of the announcements.

“Utah can be an example to the nation. Whether you vote by mail, or in person, we will peacefully support the outcome of this presidential election,” Peterson adds.

The idea for the combined effort came after Cox was approached by a friend worried about what would happen after Election Day on Nov. 3, the lieutenant governor told Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson on KSL Newsradio.

“We’ve seen civil unrest over the summer months. We have the president saying — not saying — what’s going to happen after the election. I think people are really nervous that no matter who wins there could be civil unrest and rioting and protests and those types of things,” Cox said.

He said he knew Peterson felt the same way, so they talked about whether it “would be crazy if we did something like this. We both thought it was worth trying if we could show that Utah could be different on Nov. 4, no matter who wins.”

Peterson said “it takes courage to reach out to the other side and decide that you’re going to work together. I feel that I’m going to get criticism from my political left and I know Lt. Gov. Cox is getting criticism from his political right. But it is easier in our society to just talk to the people that agree with you than it is to cross party lines.”

Both candidates said Utahns can have confidence in the election results. Utah is one of a handful of states that have been conducting elections largely by mail for several years, a process that Trump has claimed will lead to massive voter fraud.

Cox said in the radio interview that Utah is “really, really good” at voting by mail. He urged Utahns, “don’t listen to those voices that try to undermine it. If someone’s first reaction to losing is to undermine the process, then we should reject those voices.”

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, called it “notable” that the candidates are emphasizing the peaceful transfer of power given the president’s statements.

“Chris Peterson and Spencer Cox are modeling the sort of civility that many Americans say is missing from national politics and in that sense, they can be, and they say they hope to be, an example for the nation,” Karpowitz, a political science professor, said.

He said there won’t be much political impact for either gubernatorial candidate.

“In the context of a gubernatorial race that is not likely to be close, there is very little electoral benefit or danger for either candidate in making this statement, though it is still welcome news given the many ways in which partisan politics have become bitter and polarized,” Karpowitz said.

Cox and Peterson are vying to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office. A new poll for the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics shows Cox with a big lead over Peterson in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said while it’s a “classy act” for both major party candidates to come together on the message to voters, he’s not happy it has to be about a peaceful transition of power in the presidential election.

“It’s sad that we have to have our leaders essentially begging people to not engage in violent protests after the election. This does not happen in the United States, you know? Or at least it never has in the past,” Merchant said.

Whether their call for civility resonates outside of Utah is another story, Merchant said.

“We’ve talked about civility in the state of Utah for a long, long time, and I don’t know if other communities outside of Utah have really paid much attention to that message coming from Utah,” the state party leader said, adding that he’d like this time to be different. “Let’s leave our fingers crossed and hope for the best on that.”

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown did not mention the focus on the peaceful transfer of power by the candidates in his statement about their efforts.

“While national politics has become unusually toxic during 2020, it is refreshing to see the top candidates of Utah’s major political parties not just talking about a different approach, but leading by examples. Both of the gubernatorial candidates have appeared together demonstrating that while they do not always agree on policy, they certainly agree on the things that matter most,” Brown said.

The Utah GOP commends both candidates, he said. “The best policies always emerge after robust but civil debate, and we appreciate that these two candidates are showing the nation how to engage in crucial conversations, and how to do it in a way that leaves our state a better place.”