SALT LAKE CITY — In a normal election year, the crowded field of Republicans running for governor would be vying for as much face time as possible with voters in Utah’s June primary and the state party delegates who’ll advance up to two candidates to the ballot.
But with the social distancing required by the new coronavirus pandemic, this year is anything but normal.
Much has changed for the GOP gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, businessman Jeff Burningham and businesswoman Jan Garbett.
“We’ve never dealt with this and no one has dealt with this, no candidate, no party and no voter and no delegate. So we’re all in uncharted territory,” Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said, suggesting candidates should see it as an opportunity to demonstrate how they tackle difficult problems.
“I think every candidate has the same disadvantages at this point,” Brown said. “Everyone is in the same boat.”
He said the race to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not running for reelection after more than a decade in office, remains one of the hottest the state has seen in years, even if voters aren’t paying as much attention because of the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s still competitive. And in its own right, it’s still exciting. But certainly we’re all looking at bigger issues,” Brown said.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the candidates face a “gigantic challenge” in getting Utahns to focus on the election.
“We’re in a world now where people are concerned about the basic elements of human life — health and sickness, having enough food to eat, core physical safety. So in one sense, the ups and downs of any given campaign just pale in comparison to those issues,” the political science professor said.
Karpowitz said Cox, who is leading the state’s effort against the new coronavirus, and Huntsman, elected to two terms as governor before leaving office to become U.S. ambassador to China in 2009, are in the best positions to offer the reassurance he believes voters are looking for now. Both were already leading in the polls.
“Candidates are going to have to adapt to a new and very different world,” he said. “The fact of the matter is candidates who are well known and whose public roles currently lead them to a more visible role are going to have more of an advantage. They were always going to have somewhat of an advantage.”
The six candidates seeking delegate support have shifted to technology and social media, using Zoom to hold meetings streamed on Facebook and making countless telephone calls to reach delegates who in past years they likely would have sat down with over a meal at a restaurant or in someone’s living room.
The efforts to win over delegates to the Utah GOP’s state convention, now being held virtually on April 25, comes in addition to debates, rallies and other more traditional campaign events aimed at primary voters that are also on hold.
“This is kryptonite to me as a human being let alone a campaign challenge. I just don’t social distance as a matter of course in any aspect of my life,” Hughes said. “It isn’t the cycle I signed up for, I can tell you that. But you know the times we’re in are bigger than the campaign. The campaign is an incredibly important one. It’s an open seat.”
He said he’s trying to keep in mind the energy he felt during some 40 town hall meetings held around the state before the virus struck now that the campaign has switched to virtual contact with voters. With so many Utahns self-quarantined, Hughes said the online meetings have been surprisingly well attended.
“I think we’ve got to be nimble and figure out how to campaign in different times,” Hughes said. “Actually, I would argue it is a test of leadership and of your ability and of your capability, if you can change what you’re doing to match the times that you’re in. So I think that’s an important part that may be unexpected.”
Wright also expressed disappointment he’s not able to get out among voters, but said he’s “focusing on what I can control” amid all that’s happening in the world.
“We had a calendar full of events prior to the coronavirus, where from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later every single day we were doing lunches and meeting with Rotary (Clubs) and gathering at private organizations or businesses. I could have introduced myself to thousands of people in a very personal way, one on one and face to face,” he said.
“I think of all the candidates in the field, that was a big advantage for me. So rather than fold up the tent or be discouraged, you reinvent your strategy, you redefine how you’re going to connect,” Wright said. “We’re going to do it every creative way we can think of.”
Winder Newton posted an apology on Facebook Thursday for racist images and slurs that appeared during her first meeting with delegates via Zoom, forcing her to move the meeting to Facebook Live. ”One of the things you learn with this is you have to find new ways to adapt and change,” she said in the post.
Later, she said she misses meeting voters in person.
“That is my favorite part of the campaign, is getting in a room with 20 or 30 people and being able to really talk about the issues that are facing them and share my vision,” Winder Newton said. “I am deeply mourning the fact that I don’t get to do that right now. It is so hard to not get to look people in the eye.”
Those still gathering voter signatures for a guaranteed spot on the primary ballot, Huntsman and Garbett, the only Republican not competing for delegate votes, no longer have to canvass door to door under a new executive order just signed by Herbert that allows forms to be downloaded, signed and returned to campaigns.
So far, only Cox and Wright have collected the 28,000 voter signatures needed to qualify for the primary ballot. Burningham stopped gathering signatures early on in the outbreak, while Winder Newton and Hughes are only competing at convention.
“I’m going to try to do all that I can,” said Garbett, who, along with her husband and 40-year-old son, have continued to knock on the doors of voters. “We don’t push it. We keep our distance of six feet away, we don’t want anyone to feel we’re infringing on their space. We’re taking every precaution we can.”
Her campaign said signature gatherers will now leave materials on doorsteps to minimize contact with voters.
Garbett said the governor’s order “doesn’t do a thing for us” and that her campaign is evaluating their options when it comes to taking legal action. “If we can get chocolate chip cookies delivered to our door and this is the only way we can get democracy, I think we have some priorities here.”
Huntsman, who has 16,511 voter signatures verified so far and is continuing to gather names, is only dropping off or picking up signature forms from voters if they make a request, said his campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, adding that would be done “in the safest manner possible.”
Roskelley said Huntsman is meeting with delegates and others, including businesses, through conference calls and tele-town halls. He also appears in a television ad produced in response to the pandemic, telling Utahns they will rise to the challenge, which demonstrate his “calm leadership,” she said.
“While it’s not his traditional style of being able to walk Main Street and be able to go and visit people in their communities I think his efforts to reach out into those communities to the best of everyone’s ability right now has been great,” Roskelley said. “We’re all finding new ways. It is a little strange not to just jump in the car and drive.”
Cox, the head of the state’s Coronavirus Community Task Force, stopped actively campaigning last week and urged his supporters to help their neighbors rather than contribute to his election. His campaign manager, Austin Cox, said the lieutenant governor’s focus is on fighting the new coronavirus but he’s still running.
“I think the delegates would support and appreciate that. The delegates would prefer him to do the job he was elected to do rather than holding tele-town halls,” Austin Cox said. “This is the last thing on his mind at the moment.”
He said the campaign is “dealing with it day by day. Everything is changing so quickly. So we will do the best we can. We feel that the lieutenant governor has strong and wide support and that he’s willing to compete at the appropriate time.”
Burningham’s campaign manager, Jordan Hess, said he’s made the shift to virtual campaigning even though “obviously, it’s much easier to show personality face to face with a real person whereas Jeff is having to stare at the back of an iPhone. That can be challenging.”
Hess questioned why the convention and the election haven’t been delayed.
“Every other thing in the world is being postponed,” he said, citing the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo as well as other major sporting events. “So why is that option not being discussed, delaying the election until later in the summer to let things get back to normal?”