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Did Herbert ask candidate to drop out of the race and endorse his hand-picked successor? Nobody’s talking

Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright makes a point during a gubernatorial debate at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.
Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright makes a point during a gubernatorial debate at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A report saying Gov. Gary Herbert asked former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, one of the four Republican candidates in next month’s gubernatorial primary race, to drop out and endorse his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has created a political stir.

Neither the governor’s office nor Wright on Wednesday would confirm the UtahPolicy.com report, which also said Wright was urged by Herbert to run instead against Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in 2022. The report cited “five separate sources with knowledge of those discussions” that were not named.

Wright, along with former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, all gathered voter signatures to ensure a spot on the June 30 primary ballot. GOP delegates advanced Cox and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes to the ballot at their state party convention last month.

Polls have shown Cox and Huntsman in the lead, followed by Hughes and then Wright. Herbert, who served as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor and became governor in 2009 when Huntsman stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China, is not seeking reelection.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, right, wear Utah-made masks with a depiction of Delicate Arch on them as they attend the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, right, wear Utah-made masks with a depiction of Delicate Arch on them as they attend the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The governor’s chief of staff, Justin Harding, said he was the only authorized spokesman for the governor’s office on the issue and declined to answer questions about Herbert meeting with Wright.

“I was not present for the discussions and don’t have any other details to add,” Harding said, referring to a statement that said the pair have “a close friendship that brings them together from time to time to discuss personal matters. The topics they might discuss as part of their social and private interactions are just that, private.”

The statement said while the governor “is supporting his lieutenant governor in the June primary, he is appreciative of the field of candidates that have emerged to succeed him. He has profound respect for Thomas’ business acumen and the service he has rendered to the GOP, twice as a state party chairman and previously as our national committeeman.”

Wright told the Deseret News he met with the governor but would not say what they talked about.

“My conversation with the governor was private. And I intend to keep it private,” he said when asked whether the governor wanted him to leave the race and endorse Cox. “I have never considered dropping out of this race. I am in this race until the end. I believe there is a pathway to victory and we’re working hard to make that happen.”

Asked if anyone had suggested he get out of the race, Wright paused, then said “he’s had private conversations about the race.” He offered a similar answer when asked if anyone had said he should endorse Cox and offered to help him run for another office if he dropped out.

If voters wonder whether the reports about his discussions with Herbert are true, Wright said, “They should ask the sitting governor.”

A close friend, he said, told him before he got in the race, “something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You’re an outsider and you’re getting into an insider’s game and career politicians don’t like outsiders entering their arena unless it’s on their terms.’ I’m in this race to win it as the outsider. I don’t expect it to be easy.”

Wright said if he becomes governor, “as an elected official I would not get involved in a race to elect my successor. As chairman I didn’t do that in the Utah Republican Party even though I was asked. I didn’t do it when they replaced me as national committeeman. I believe the voters should make their own decisions.”

He said he “absolutely” would not attempt to talk someone into leaving a political race and endorsing another candidate while offering to help in a run for a different office. “I don’t think it’s ethical. I don’t think it’s honest. I don’t think it’s becoming of being an elected official.”

Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, declined to comment about the story.

Hughes said in a statement to the Deseret News that Herbert “has been putting his thumb on the scale throughout the race. He calls the donors of other candidates, he anointed Spencer Cox the chair of the state’s COVID-19 task force, and now is trying to coax a candidate to drop out with promises of campaign support for the next U.S. Senate race.”

He said, “Governors should keep their thumbs to themselves. It’s an open seat.”

Huntsman told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Wednesday that “you read what’s out there and no, this is not normal behavior politically for a chief executive of the state and if what we are hearing is true — and I don’t want to jump to conclusions or any premature judgments — then it represents bad behavior.”

That’s “the kind of behavior that the people of this state would never accept and the kind of thing that you see in other countries that we condemn. If there’s a quid pro quo involved in some aspect of it, then that’s not a good thing. But we’ll wait for the details to come out,” he said, adding he’s staying focused on the race.

Lee endorsed Huntsman before the state party convention. The senator’s spokesman, Conn Carroll, had little to say when asked about the UtahPolicy.com report. “That really sounds like a question for Herbert to answer,” Carroll said.

Michael Jolley, a former Lee staffer who was a spokesman for former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham, said he was told by someone close to the Wright campaign that the meetings took place as described. He said he heard about the meetings after Burningham was out of the race.

“I was told that they met about two weeks ago and basically that the governor asked Thomas to drop out of the race and endorse Spencer Cox and encouraged him to run for Senate in 2022 and said that he could help get an endorsement of the next governor and also help rally the business community to his side,” Jolley said.

He said he was told that Wright turned down the governor’s initial request but was summoned to a second meeting where he was again encouraged to drop out of the race.

Jolley said he believes Herbert has the “greater responsibility” to clarify what actually happened as an elected official.

UtahPolicy.com Publisher LaVarr Webb said he stands by the story.

“I think it was well-researched and with multiple sources. I have not heard any questions or complaints about it. I don’t think it’s unusual for a supporter of one candidate to talk to another candidate, so we’re not alleging anything nefarious there,” Webb said.