SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. could still be a candidate for governor this fall even though he just lost the state’s GOP primary election to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in a close race, if an attempt to get him to run as a write-in candidate succeeds.
Alecia Williams, a self-described “volunteer/strategic adviser” to Huntsman in the final month of the primary race, said Friday she’s the spokeswoman for a group of supporters exploring a write-in campaign for the twice-elected governor out of frustration that Cox won with just over 35% of the vote in a four-way June 30 primary race.
“We believe that we had a candidate that will appeal to a broader base and we really, truly believe that he is the right person for the job. We understand that we’re taking a risk,” she said. “We understand that this is a monumental effort. So our head is on straight. We’re not just running on emotions or hurt feelings.”
Huntsman has not commented on whether he’s considering the possibility, and his campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, said earlier this week only that they were not behind polling about a write-in campaign underway before the race was called for Cox on Monday and “have never had a discussion about it.”
Huntsman’s daughter, Abby, told the Deseret News Friday that the family “has been out of town and know nothing about these efforts. Anything being done would be by a third party.”
Sources inside the campaigns for the other GOP gubernatorial primary candidates, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, told the Deseret News they have been contacted about backing a Huntsman write-in candidacy but aren’t interested.
Cox’s campaign had no comment Friday.
Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, a Huntsman backer, said he’s heard rumors of a write-in effort but doesn’t “know who’s looking at this or who’s driving it. No one’s talked to me about it.” He also said he was not paying for the polling.
“I have not talked to Jon about it. I have not talked to anyone in the campaign about it,” Anderson said. “I think if Jon asked me about it, I’d probably discourage him from doing it. I’m not sure how the voters would react to that, having lost the primary and coming back. It would be costly. I haven’t seen any polls or numbers.”
Williams, a former campaign manager for another unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, said she didn’t come up with the idea for a write-in campaign and had been asked not to share who was behind it.
“They said they definitely preferred to remain anonymous. But they do not have any affiliation to the campaign and were not paid by any Huntsman-related entity,” she said after attending a meeting to review results of the poll paid for by “an independent person.”
However, sources told the Deseret News that consultants to the Huntsman campaign were behind the effort.
Williams said the plan is to show Huntsman how much support there is, based on the poll findings that she said gave Huntsman a slight edge over Cox in November, with both Republicans easily beating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor.
A pitch to Huntsman about a run is several weeks away, she said, adding she and others involved are “energized.”
Williams said she has not talked to Huntsman about a write-in campaign but, “I’m sure he’s aware of our efforts. The news, the speculation is out there that people are working on this. We haven’t received a call from him to stop. But we haven’t received any outreach of, ‘I want in, what do you guys know, what have you found.’”
Utah allows write-in candidates to file for office until Aug. 31, state Elections Director Justin Lee said, but no one else can file on behalf of a candidate. Only races with write-in candidates have a line on the ballot where a name can be added, and only the names of official write-in candidates are counted, Lee said.
There is already a write-in candidate in the Utah governor’s race, Richard T. Whitney.
Huntsman, elected governor in 2004 and again in 2008, came within just over a percentage point of Cox in the race according to the most recent results in the primary that was conducted entirely by mail because of COVID-19 precautions. In order to request a recount, he would have to be within 0.25%.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a former economic development official in the Huntsman administration, said while some Huntsman supporters may be looking for options, a write-in candidacy “has not historically been a very successful option in the state.”
Voters may take a dim view of a candidate who runs a write-in race after losing a primary.
“Huntsman is not behind this effort so it would be misplaced to say that it’s sour grapes for him,” he said. “To do so would require a candidate who is motivated to be part of the write-in effort and it would require an amazing amount of effort and money to make that happen. And there are so many unknowns between now and November.”
Perry said a statewide write-in campaign is unprecedented in Utah. In 2004, homebuilder Ellis Ivory jumped into the Salt Lake County mayor’s race late as a write-in candidate to replace the embattled GOP incumbent, Nancy Workman, but Democrat Peter Corroon ended up winning the election.
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he doesn’t believe Huntsman is considering a write-in campaign.
“I take him at his word,” Brown said. “Since he is a Republican, I am confident that he will support the Republican Party’s process and nominees.”
The state party chairman pointed out that in the primary, “many Republicans won their races, and many lost. I am pleased to see so many of our unsuccessful candidates publicly demonstrate both grace and class by agreeing to put their differences aside, as is our tradition, and unify behind our party’s candidates.”
He said Huntsman was no exception, “conceding the race and stating: ‘We accept the will of the people.’ After massive participation by delegates at our state convention, and the largest Republican primary voter turnout in Utah history, and after having the same candidate win both, Republicans have spoken.”
GOP delegates advanced Cox and Hughes to the primary, eliminating Winder Newton and other candidates from the race to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office. Cox, Huntsman and Wright all secured a spot on the ballot by gathering voter signatures.