SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday formally endorsed his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, in the June 30 Republican primary race that includes the man he succeeded in office more than a decade ago, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

“I have spent almost seven years working closely with my lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox,” Herbert says in a TV commercial set to start airing Thursday. “He is a proven leader and a true conservative who is deeply committed to our state and its future. I trust his judgment and vision, especially in challenging times.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor named Cox to the high-profile role as leader of the state’s coronavirus task force. He says in the commercial: “This recovery is too important to leave to chance. Spencer helped me lead our economy into the most prosperous period in state history. I trust him to do it again.”

Cox and Huntsman, who are joined on the primary ballot by former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, have led through the race in polling, including a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll last month, before party delegates narrowed the field.

Herbert, a lieutenant governor under Huntsman until Huntsman stepped down in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama, is not seeking reelection and had previously backed Cox’s candidacy.

But Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, said while Herbert had “been very encouraging,” he had not made a formal endorsement until now.

“He’s said nice things about everybody in the race, of course, but this week he’s decided to officially endorse Spencer,” Austin Cox said. “This is a really big deal to get such strong backing from Utah’s most popular governor, at least in recent times.”

The 30-second TV commercial, which ends with Herbert urging viewers to “vote for Spencer Cox to be Utah’s next governor,” marks the start of the “the governor being an active proponent of his candidacy between now and Election Day,” Austin Cox said.

In January 2019, Herbert held a fundraiser for Spencer Cox. When Cox announced he was running for governor five months later, Herbert said “Jeanette and I are excited to see the lieutenant governor and his lovely wife, Abby, make this decision. We sincerely wish them well and hope for their success.”

Huntsman, then serving as President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Russia, was already said to be looking at another run for governor, but didn’t get in the race until November. Herbert told reporters in October he hadn’t been aware of Huntsman’s plans but would not pull back his support of Cox.

Cox referred to Huntsman without naming him in a statement about Herbert’s endorsement.

“I know of Gov. Herbert’s sincere respect for other candidates in this race with whom he has previously served, but Abby and I are grateful to earn his endorsement and appreciate him encouraging Utahns to support us in the June primary election,” the lieutenant governor said.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the endorsement is significant for Cox.

“It’s dramatic and important news for Spencer Cox and his campaign and, I’m sure, a blow to the Huntsman campaign,” Karpowitz said. “I don’t think this means the race is over by any stretch, but this is a meaningful and important endorsement that is likely to add more momentum to the Cox campaign.”

He said Herbert could have chosen to stay out of the primary race, given his close ties to both Cox and Huntsman.

“It’s bound to create a little bit of tension the next time the two governors are together. But the fact that he didn’t have to make this endorsement but still chose to is further indication that it’s likely to be important and helpful news for the Cox campaign,” Karpowitz said.

Herbert’s endorsement of Cox, the political science professor said, “both allows the governor to be consistent with previous statements“ supporting his No. 2 “and emphasizes that a Cox governorship would continue the Herbert legacy.”

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Cox had already picked up an endorsement from one of the Republicans in the race who was not advanced by delegates at the party’s state convention last month, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton. Cox and Hughes were the top two picks of GOP delegates.

He had also gathered voter signatures to guarantee a spot on the primary ballot, as did Huntsman and Wright, who also competed for delegate support. The four-way primary race means a candidate can win without a majority of the vote, something that may have factored into the governor’s decision.

Hughes, who is attempting to position himself as the most conservative candidate running, has targeted Cox throughout the campaign, including for critical statements made about Trump before the 2016 presidential election.

Herbert has “kept conservatives on his side, but he’s won over many moderates as well,” Karpowitz said. “Greg Hughes would present a different approach to leading the state and a different set of priorities in some respects. So perhaps Gov. Herbert sees this as a way of blunting any momentum Greg Hughes seems to have.”

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