SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s GOP gubernatorial primary race is now down to two candidates, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox continues to maintain a lead of more than 11,000 votes over former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in the latest election results released Wednesday afternoon.
Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes conceded the race Wednesday, while former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright acknowledged he had lost his bid to become the Republican nominee for governor shortly after results posted Tuesday.
Cox was ahead of Huntsman in the latest results, with just under 37% of the vote to just over 34% for Huntsman. Hughes trailed with less than 21% of the vote, followed by Wright, with just under 8%. There’s estimated to be nearly 110,00 more ballots left to count in the by-mail election, more than half of which are in Salt Lake County.
Changes made to the electoral process for the primary due to COVID-19 permitted ballots to be postmarked on Election Day, a day later than usual. New safety precautions include quarantining ballots for at least 24 hours and limiting the number of election employees in the counting rooms to maintain social distancing.
Polls had predicted a close race between Cox, a former state lawmaker and local elected official who still lives in Fairview in Sanpete County, and Huntsman, twice elected governor, in 2004 and 2008, before stepping down to become U.S. ambassador to China and later, make a brief run for the White House. He most recently served as U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Neither Cox nor Huntsman commented on the updated results Wednesday.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the race remains too close to call.
“Spencer Cox has developed a good reputation across multiple different constituencies within the Republican Party. He’s drawing both moderates and more conservative voters, some of whom chose him over Greg Hughes,” Karpowitz said.
A win by Cox would “be an impressive victory over a former governor who was very popular when he held office,” the political science professor said, pointing out that “Huntsman’s campaign was hampered to some extent by the fact that his own relationship with the Republican Party has been less certain.”
Huntsman left the governorship to head to Beijing under Democratic President Barack Obama and was a leader of No Labels, a political organization dedicated to promoting bipartisanship in Congress, but also served as Trump’s ambassador in Moscow.
“That has left some wondering exactly how committed he is to the Republican Party,” Karpowitz said. “But it’s also possible that the fact he left the governor’s office relatively soon after being reelected had a lingering effect. Huntsman himself battled coronavirus during the campaign, so that may have had an effect, too.”
The bottom line is this is “a very close race that could still go either way. Spencer Cox has been seen as a very promising politician ever since he was chosen as lieutenant governor, so in some sense, perhaps voters saw this as a choice between the future and the past.”
What was clear in Tuesday’s results was that voters weren’t as interested in strong support for Trump. Hughes had made his backing of the president since the 2016 election a key part of his campaign, targeting Cox for his past criticisms of Trump.
“Hughes’ showing raises the possibility that running as the ‘Trump candidate’ has limits, even in a Republican primary in a red state like Utah,” Karpowitz said, noting the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has further affected his popularity.
In a Facebook post, Hughes thanked his opponents. “The competition was stiff, the bar was high and Utahn’s deserved a hard fought race for their support. We delivered,” he said, then quoted scripture. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
His campaign manager, Greg Hartley, said Hughes will back the primary winner.
Many see the results of Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary determining who will replace Gov. Gary Herbert, a former lieutenant governor who assumed the office when Huntsman resigned, chose not to run again after more than a decade in office. Utahns have not elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.
The Democratic nominee in the governor’s race, chosen this spring by party delegates, is Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration. Peterson declined to say whether he believes Cox or Huntsman would be the stronger opponent in the general election.
“I’m going to let Republican primary voters select their candidate. Right now, I’m focused on presenting a message of change, tax fairness and public service,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate said. “We need checks and balances on the party elites, lobbyists and insiders that have controlled state government for too long.”