SALT LAKE CITY — The race for Utah’s first open governor’s seat since the late Gov. Norm Bangerter decided not to run for a third term in 1992 has dominated this election year so far, with a field of a dozen major-party candidates already narrowed to a single Democrat and four Republicans.
Now it’s up to GOP primary voters on June 30 to choose the Republican who’ll face Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, on the November ballot from among Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
But given that Utahns haven’t elected a Democrat as governor in 40 years, many see the Republican primary as all but deciding who will follow Gov. Gary Herbert into office. Herbert, a lieutenant governor for nearly five years before becoming governor in 2009 when Huntsman stepped down to take a federal post, did not seek reelection.
Eight Republicans initially sought their party’s nomination, but three of them, Provo entrepreneur Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and perennial candidate Jason Christensen were eliminated from the race in April by delegates to the state GOP convention.
Businesswoman Jan Garbett, the only candidate in the race who didn’t compete at convention, failed to gather enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, even after a federal judge reduced the number needed after she sued the state for not doing more to ease requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cox, Huntsman and Wright all qualified for the primary ballot by gathering voter signatures, while Cox and Hughes were advanced by party delegates. The four-way race means a candidate could win the nomination with just over a quarter of the vote in what will be an almost entirely by-mail election.
Polls have shown Cox and Huntsman in the lead throughout the race, but Cox has pulled further ahead in the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll, followed by Huntsman, with Hughes closing in and Wright trailing.
The coronavirus outbreak has had a major impact on this and other races from mid-March on, with candidates only able to meet virtually with often-distracted voters until socially distanced events were permitted. Debates are now being held again in-person, but without audiences.
Before the pandemic — and before protesters repeatedly took to the streets in Salt Lake City and around the country to decry police brutality against blacks — one of the biggest issues facing the state was replacing a tax reform plan rejected by Utahns even though it reduced tax collections overall by $160 million.
Now, up to $2 billion may have to be slashed from the state budget as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, and there’s increased pressure on the governor to lift many of the remaining restrictions put in place to stop the virus’ spread even as the number of cases continues to climb.
Candidates, already focused on issues like improving education, dealing with growth and sustaining the state’s strong economy, have shifted their focus to something unimaginable just a few months ago, addressing the financial hit sustained by Utahns as businesses were shuttered and unemployment climbed.
There’s been increasing friction among the candidates as the primary nears. Ballots were mailed out to voters around the state last week, and election officials are preparing for what could exceed the turnout in the state’s Super Tuesday presidential primary on March 3.
Spencer Cox touts ‘homegrown’ roots
Cox, the first candidate to jump into the governor’s race more than a year ago, has increasingly been targeted by the other Republicans running, for both his high-profile role as head of the state’s COVID-19 task force and his consistent if sometimes slight lead in polls.
He was endorsed early on by Herbert, who’d chosen him in 2013 to fill the vacancy left when Lt. Gov. Greg Bell resigned. Cox, a state representative, also held various elected posts in his hometown of Fairview, Sanpete County, but was primarily known for being the first lawmaker to call for then-Attorney General John Swallow’s impeachment.
Cox says it’s his “homegrown” rural roots that set him apart from the other candidates. He commutes to the Capitol daily from a home in Fairview that’s been in his family for generations and continues to make visiting all of Utah’s 248 cities and towns a priority for his campaign despite being stalled for a while by the virus outbreak.
“I’m somebody that has lived and worked on the Wasatch Front but also was born and raised and continues to live in rural Utah, someone who understands the differences and the growing divide between urban and rural in our state,” he said, that’s making Utahns living outside the state’s population belt feel left out.
The impact of the coronavirus has put rebuilding the economy front and center, “making sure people have jobs and getting people back to work,” Cox said. Education is a close second, including retraining and other workforce development in both rural and urban parts of the states.
As lieutenant governor, Cox has seldom publicly disagreed with Herbert, a man he describes as “an incredible governor and an incredible mentor,” although he says they do argue over issues privately. “Sometimes I win and sometime I don’t. Then it is my job to go out there and support him and help implement his policies.”
The exception is tax reform, and Cox is quick to say he is grateful the governor “allowed me that space to go out and voice my opposition.”
Asked about other disagreements with the governor and what would be different in a Cox administration, he said he has “to be careful with this one. I am still lieutenant governor of the state.”
As far as continuing an administration that could be argued began when Herbert was serving as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, Cox said “the case makes itself. Utahns are very proud of their state. They’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together,” including leading the nation in upward mobility.
“There’s so many good things happening here in the state of Utah that we have an opportunity to build on, so I’m not going to hide from our record,” he said. “I would stand it up against anyone, against any other state in the country and anyone in this race. If people want something different, that’s obviously their prerogative.”
Herbert has rewarded that loyalty by putting Cox out front in the state’s response to the novel coronavirus, where he was able to participate in daily briefings watched by many Utahns confined to their homes, while other candidates in the race were largely out of the public eye.
That led to Cox’s primary opponents piling on during the recent Utah Debate Commission debate, accusing him of politicizing the pandemic and spending millions of dollars on no-bid contracts related to COVID-19, including for testing.
Cox, who turned over day-to-day campaigning to his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, during the height of the pandemic, insisted they were the ones playing politics with the deadly virus, not him.
“There’s nothing political about doing your job as an elected official,” he said, adding that he’s “proud of the response the state has made to the coronavirus. It hasn’t been perfect. It never is. There’s no road map to how to respond in a global pandemic, something we haven’t seen in over 100 years.”
His opponents, he pointed out, are not criticizing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for leading the administration’s response.
“This is the silly season. This is what happens when you’re winning. I get it. People are looking for any way to tear people down. We made a commitment, my wife and I, when we decided that we were going to run for office, that we would do it differently,” Cox said, and avoid the “toxic” politics seen in Washington.
But Trump isn’t to blame for that toxicity, he said.
Cox said he’ll vote for Trump in November, but in 2016 wrote in another candidate for president he recalls was Herbert. Now, even though he still has never spoken with Trump, Cox said the state’s “wonderful relationship with the administration” established by Herbert will continue if he’s elected governor.
“There were lots of people who didn’t support the president back then,” he said. “Look, I’m a kid who grew up on a farm in Fairview and I didn’t think there was any way that a billionaire from New York who’d been a Democrat most of his life would care anything about Utah and certainly not rural Utah. And I was wrong on that.”
Jon Huntsman Jr. sees job as ‘labor of love’
Huntsman is campaigning from isolation at his Federal Heights-area home after his latest test for COVID-19 came back positive last week. He’s suffering from nausea and a ragged cough, but while key members of his campaign staff have the virus, too, his family has tested negative.
The former governor said he expects to fully recover and is “as active as ever. I try to do all that I can with my limited capacity, but it seems I am going nonstop, doing things until your respiratory system can’t take it anymore. Maybe I’m overdoing it, but we’re just doing what you need to do to finish everything out.”
But the diagnosis has given him pause.
“It reminds you of the fragility of life, because you’re never going to get this and then you do,” Huntsman said. “It really causes you to focus your own experience on testing and the more vulnerable population because some people will get through this and be just fine. I’m one of them. ...There are others that have preexisting conditions.”
Because Huntsman initially was told he was virus-free after waiting days for results, then that his sample was contaminated and he had to be retested, he said he’s seen “the sheer anxiety on the faces of our own kids,” especially his daughter, Liddy, who has Type 1 diabetes and is staying with her parents along with her children.
“We’re going to get through it, but there are a lot of other families that go through the same thing,” he said.
“So for me, there’s a health component, there’s an economic component and there’s a mental health component. Because the anxiety is very, very real and the emotion that it brings out, thinking and concluding always the worst in not having timely and accurate information.”
Huntsman has already been elected Utah’s governor twice, in 2004 and 2008, but turned over the reins to Herbert, his lieutenant governor, less than a year into his second term after being named U.S. ambassador to China by then-President Barack Obama.
After two years in Beijing, Huntsman returned to Washington, D.C., and launched a brief run for president in 2012 that ended after a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire, a primary won by the GOP’s eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
There was talk of another presidential bid as well as a run for the Senate, but Huntsman steered away from politics, instead focusing on heading up The Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, and helping to lead the Huntsman Cancer Institute started by his father, the late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.
Trump’s 2016 victory landed him back in the mix, first as a contender for secretary of state and later as the president’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Russia, a post he held until last year, when he came back to Utah and jumped into the governor’s race.
One of the questions Huntsman has faced throughout the campaign is why he wants to be Utah’s governor again.
“This, for me, is a labor of love. I do this because I believe in service. I do this because I love the state. We’re going to be around another seven generations. I don’t need a title. I don’t care about a title. I don’t need a portrait hanging on the wall of the Capitol — I’ve already got that,” he said.
Huntsman said he’s ready to stay put in Utah, citing family milestones missed while overseas, including his father’s death.
He said although he’s “the luckiest guy in the world” to be the only American to serve as the nation’s ambassador to both China and Russia, he won’t take another position in the federal government. Another run for president is also out, he said.
What drives him now, Huntsman said, is using his experience on behalf of Utah at a time when there’s never been “more opportunity on the horizon for the state, for us to capture the sense of disquiet and confusion, both internationally and domestically,” as a result of the global pandemic and unrest over racial issues.
“I think it’s a very rare moment in history and I’m going to be very focused on how we can deliver for the state by doubling our economy over the next 10 years,” he said. “It has reinforced my resolve to focus laser-like on how we get out of the hole and how we not just recover but how, in fact, we are reborn around a new economic vision.”
Utah is poised to become the “crossroads of the world,” a global center for the financial services, biotechnology and defense industries, Huntsman said, but only under leadership that’s willing to think big and understands what he termed a “once-per-century” shift in international commerce.
But too little has evolved in terms of Utah’s economic development and tax policy since his time as governor, Huntsman said. “What we need is a 2.0. As the person who built that engine to begin with, I think I’m also best-positioned to help design and lead that 2.0 effort.”
Greg Hughes ready for ‘hard conversations’ on state’s future
Hughes likes to make it clear he isn’t afraid of controversy by first quoting the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple: “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.” In that vein, he decided to “run a very different campaign, that I would not sell ice cream, that I would engage in a debate in this race.”
He said he is committed to tell voters “the truth. We would point out the sky is the limit for the state of Utah but the work in front of us will be hard. If it was impactful and game-changing and very easy and universally embraced, then somebody’s already done that. What we have are challenges, but we’re up to those challenges as a state.”
With COVID-19, “times got even harder” and made his message more relevant, Hughes said. “The world we’re living in and the things happening across the country, I think strong leadership and being willing to have hard conversations, I think the state’s ready for it, needs it, and I think I bring that to this race.”
He’s slammed the state for shutting down what was not deemed essential to stop the spread of the deadly virus and only slowly reopening, pinning much of the blame for what he calls stripping away constitutional liberties on Cox as head of the governor’s coronavirus task force.
Utah stopped short of a stay-at-home order, but Hughes said he would have kept everything open, from schools to churches to businesses, telling residents, “to the degree you can stay inside, you must stay inside,” especially the elderly and medically vulnerable.
“I would trust the people of Utah by providing as much information as possible about this virus,” Hughes said, and then take the same approach as South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi L. Noem said residents should choose whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”
South Dakota saw one of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks at a meatpacking plant, and Utah is experiencing spikes in the numbers of cases as businesses like restaurants and shopping malls resume limited operations, along with churches and other gatherings.
Hughes said he doesn’t believe the increases suggest “we’re spreading it like wildfire. But I would say as governor, ‘Look, folks, when strangers are around each other at a higher frequency, this is going to spread more. Eyes wide open.’ We have to know that and we have to take precautions.”
However, he said the government should not mandate that face masks be worn, calling it “an individual choice” to be made by businesses as well as people. Hughes won’t wear a face mask but does carry hand sanitizer as well as a copper device he uses to open doors and push elevator buttons without touching them.
That’s enough in Utah, a state with a young and healthy population compared to the rest of the nation, he said.
“I think we can lead out on this, especially emerging from this virus. Our economy can recover quicker,” Hughes said. “But we have to allow that to happen. You’ve got to take the shackles off the people of this state. The weight of this virus is being borne on the working people of the state of Utah unfairly and that needs to end.”
Hughes says like Trump, he’s the candidate who relates to the “little guy and gal,” choosing to announce his candidacy from a service bay at a Millcreek auto repair shop started by Vietnamese immigrants. His unwavering support for the president has been a key part of Hughes’ campaign.
He’s repeatedly targeted Cox’s past critical statements against Trump. Hughes has also tussled with former Utah Democratic Party Leader Jim Dabakis for registering as a Republican to vote in the gubernatorial primary and encouraging others to do the same to prevent a “Gov. Hughes” from taking office.
The attack, Hughes said, is coming because he’s the most conservative candidate in the race, a credential he burnished by selecting as his running mate Washington County Commission Chairman Chairman Victor Iverson, who once backed an ordinance declaring La Verkin as a “United Nations-free zone” as a city councilman.
An amateur boxer raised by a single mother in Pittsburgh, Hughes is also known for taking on tough fights during his 16 years in the Utah Legislature that ended in 2018, including two terms as House speaker, but his biggest battle may have been against Medicaid expansion.
As speaker, Hughes successfully stalled the governor’s “Healthy Utah” version of the federally subsidized medical care available to low-income Americans under the Affordable Care Act. Yet the same year Hughes chose not to seek reelection, voters passed a citizens initiative for full Medicaid expansion later rewritten by lawmakers.
He said Herbert should have used the “bully pulpit” of the governor’s office, something he said even a House speaker doesn’t have, to make sure voters understood that Medicaid expansion is “getting into a mindset that government can be all things to all people.”
Thomas Wright says it’s time for a political ‘outsider’
Wright, owner and CEO of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, has tried to appeal to voters as the outsider in a race dominated by career politicians, emphasizing his business experience starting up a Park City-based real estate company during the Great Recession.
But Wright has been active with the Utah Republican Party for 12 years, including a stint as state chairman, and has been a friend of the governor even longer. Herbert summoned Wright to the governor’s mansion after the state party convention and asked him to drop out of the race and endorse his chosen successor, Cox.
Wright, who said the governor also suggested at the meeting that there would be support if he waited to run against Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in 2022, turned down the offer. But Wright said Herbert called him after the recent Utah Debate Commission debate and was “very positive,” and they remain friends.
He said his work with the GOP, done as a volunteer, provided him perspective on how politics works.
“I believe that my experience with the Republican Party makes me the perfect combination of an outsider that can hit the ground running on day one. I’ve never held public elected office. I can go in fresh and I know how things work so I can be effective,” Wright said.
He’s also promising to bring new people, “free of past entanglements and fights,” into his administration, even though his running mate, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has served in Congress since 2003 and before that, was a Utah House speaker and, like Wright, a state GOP chairman. Bishop also considered his own bid for governor.
Wright says he’s the one running for governor, not Bishop. “Congressman Bishop has been in Washington, D.C. These are state government positions.” Bishop’s role in the administration, Wright has said, would focus on working with state lawmakers as well the federal government on issue such as public lands.
His business experience is catching the attention of voters, Wright said, as they experience the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.
“I think the fact that I’m a business person that can help get the economy back on track and get Utahns back to work really resonates,” he said, given he “had to make difficult decisions during difficult times and that I’ve proven I can lead organizations through and out of difficult times. I think the economic message is really big for Utahns.”
So is what Wright says is a byproduct of the same people being in power for too long, “some red flags when it comes to complacency in state government, whether its facial recognition with DMV photos, whether its no-bid contracts, whether its apps we purchased that still aren’t functioning.”
Voters “like the idea of somebody coming in and cleaning up some of those things that are concerning to them,” he said. “During these tough economic times, people want to be sure that state government is holding their money in a sacred trust and spending it properly.”
Also appreciated by voters, Wright said, is his call for the state and local sales tax on food to be suspended during the pandemic. “People love it. They love it. They ask me all the time, we’re almost three months into this pandemic and there’s been no tax relief. ... Why is it taking so long for government to react?”
His single-digit poll numbers, Wright said, are because he’s not as well-known to voters as the other candidates.
“My name ID starting in this race was lower than my opponents. So my job was not only to get a message out, but to get people to know me,” Wright said, adding that voters like what they’re hearing from his campaign. “We see that traction in our internal polling. We believe there’s a pathway to victory and we’re going to keep working.”
The coronavirus has made efforts to introduce himself to voters more difficult, he said.
“One day your calendar is full for the next four months. And the next day, it’s completely empty because of a global pandemic,” Wright said, forcing the campaign to get creative, including using humor in several TV spots. “There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. We’re trying to make up for lost time.”
Despite the talk of a Senate bid, Wright dismissed speculation he’s running for governor now so voters throughout the state will get to know him as a conservative contender, using the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a future campaign.
“I’m in this race to win it. I always have been. There is no ulterior motive in this race other than winning and making a difference in the state of Utah,” Wright said, adding he’s not thinking about running for any other office but if he loses the governor’s race, would continue to serve the state “in any meaningful way I can.”