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Huntsman, Cox continue to lead in tight GOP governor’s race

Utahns say they’d trust Huntsman most to lead in a crisis, poll finds

Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, left, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns would most trust former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to lead the state in a time of crisis, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll that also found Huntsman and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox continue to lead among Republican voters in a tight GOP race for governor.

Huntsman and Cox have already qualified for the June 30 primary election ballot, along with former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright. There could be as many as five Republican candidates for governor on the Utah primary election ballot in June, depending on what party delegates decide during Saturday’s virtual state GOP convention.

Just over a quarter of registered Utah voters polled, 26%, chose Huntsman as the candidate they would have the most trust in as their leader during a crisis. Huntsman was elected governor twice, stepping down months into his second term in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China, and later served as U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Cox, who is serving as head of Gov. Gary Herbert’s COVID-19 task force, was named by 13% of Utahns as their most-trusted candidate from among a list of Republicans, but 37% said they weren’t sure and 11% answered none of the above.

Other GOP candidates trailed Huntsman and Cox on the trust question, with former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes at 4%; Provo entrepreneur Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton at 3%; Wright, a former Utah GOP chairman, at 2%; and businesswoman Jan Garbett, 1%.

“It has more to do with people’s expectations than anything else,” pollster Scott Rasmussen said Wednesday of who voters want in charge during a crisis like the global coronavirus pandemic, adding he’s “not terribly surprised a former governor did very well and a current lieutenant governor did very well on that.”

Rasmussen, who conducted the poll for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that’s because Utahns “can see them in that role. ... When somebody’s been in that position, there’s a comfort level.”

But he said that trust measure is just “one of many things that might be an additional boost for a candidate.”

The poll, which was conducted April 15-21 of 964 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, also asked Utahns which attributes were most important to them in a governor as they look for a candidate to succeed Herbert, who is not running for reelection after more than a decade in office.

Intellect was rated very important by 82% of respondents, followed by trustworthiness, ranked at the same level of importance by 75%; temperament, 65%; negotiating skills, 50%; government experience, 48%; and business experience, 47%.

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the pandemic is what’s on voters’ minds now.

“People care about who their next governor is but that is taking a back seat to the items that people are most concerned about right now, which is their jobs and their families and their ability to provide and when their kids can get back to school,” Perry said.

He said that contributed to nearly half of the poll respondents not naming a candidate they trust most.

“People are defaulting to people who they trust and names they know,” Perry said, adding that despite the distraction caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the poll results show “Utahns still have very high standards for their governor. ... The bar has not been lowered in the minds of Utahns. They expect a high-quality candidate.”

Among likely GOP primary voters, Huntsman still leads the race, with 26% saying he’s their pick, closely followed by Cox with 24%. Burningham, Hughes and Wright are all at 5%, and Winder Newton, 3%, while nearly a third, 32% said they’re not sure.

The poll question about the governor’s race was asked of 297 likely GOP primary voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.

The candidates have already posted videos to the Utah GOP website to campaign for the support of delegates to the party’s first virtual state convention. Delegates can advance up to two candidates to the primary ballot, and early voting via an app is already underway.

Huntsman and Cox are both emphasizing their government experience. For Huntsman, that includes serving both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump in key ambassadorships. Cox, a former Fairview mayor, Sanpete County commissioner and state lawmaker, is lieutenant governor and the high-profile head of the governor’s COVID-19 task force.

Huntsman said he’s “rigorously competing at the convention,” including asking delegates who don’t see him as their first choice to rank him No. 2 on their ballots. Still, Huntsman said he “wouldn’t mind seeing a crowded primary. I think we have other voices that didn’t do the signature route that deserve to be heard as well.”

What Utahns are looking for in a governor is who is best able to lead them out of the pandemic, “the greatest crisis we have experienced since World War II,” Huntsman said.

“It’s going to take some leadership that knows something about working at the state level as a chief executive, working in private industry, working the global markets because this is not a Utah pandemic, it’s not a national pandemic, it’s a global pandemic,” he said. “People will be relying on the world recovering.”

Cox was not available Wednesday. His running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, said she has been doing almost all of the campaigning and “the delegates seem to be very understanding. Spencer’s first and foremost job is to do what he was elected to do and to focus on that job. It’s more important than running for office.”

The Spanish Fork lawmaker said the Herbert administration’s handling of the pandemic hasn’t been an issue with delegates. She said state leaders “have done a really great job of threading the needle, of prioritizing public health and economic health” and are balancing the two.

Henderson also said Cox is not being hurt by mailers sent to delegates by Hughes targeting critical statements the lieutenant governor made against Trump. Henderson said the statements were made before the 2016 election, at a time when many Republicans backed other presidential candidates.

Hughes, who is positioning himself as the conservative choice, citing his early support for Trump and success in blocking Medicaid expansion when he was speaker, said his “frustration” is that Cox has withdrawn from campaigning to be part of the COVID-19 response and isn’t responsive.

“I am a candidate who is ready to have the uncomfortable conversations and I think those are very relevant topics that in the absence of actively participating in an election cycle, I put out there,” Hughes said. “I felt the delegates had the right to know because they didn’t,” and opposition to Trump is a “deal-killer.”

He said Cox did not need to be involved in the state’s response to coronavirus and that it has made it harder on candidates to talk about the issue “because they do not want to be accused of using COVID-19 and a pandemic for purposes of electioneering.”

Wright and Burningham are hoping their business backgrounds show they’re the best equipped to lead the state’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

What’s top of mind with delegates, Wright said, is getting Utahns back to work. He called for a “strong balancing act between acting responsible and putting health and safety first, while simultaneously acknowledging that we need an economy that is functioning, that people need to go to work. They want to go to work.”

Burningham said he has the “significant resources” needed to take on the contenders already in the primary election, after loaning his campaign $2 million since January. “You don’t need your own resources to compete. But you do need resources, wherever those resources come from.”

Winder Newton is stressing that her 25 years in local government means she is the only candidate in the race who has experience as an elected official but isn’t part of what she termed “the establishment” that’s already had a role in running the state.

“Now that we’re facing an economic crisis, I think more and more delegates are recognizing that we don’t want the establishment but we still want somebody with experience,” she said, bringing more attention from delegates. “It’s actually resonating really well with people.”

Jason Christensen, who has previously run for office as an Independent American Party candidate, is also seeking the GOP nomination at the convention. Garbett, the only Republican candidate for governor not competing for delegate support, is suing the state after failing to submit the needed number of voter signatures.

Democrats are also nominating candidates at their state convention Saturday, which will also be virtual. University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson is hoping to become his party’s pick for governor by winning at least 60% of the Democratic delegate vote, but said he is taking nothing for granted.