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Huntsman says he won’t run as write-in candidate for Utah governor

But some supporters still hoping to convince former governor to run again

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. gives an interview at his campaign office in Salt Lake City after initial results show him trailing Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox by less than 1% on the night of the primary election, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
Jon Huntsman Jr. gives an interview at his campaign office in Salt Lake City on the night of the primary election, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Monday he’s not running as a write-in candidate in November.

“While we appreciate the continued enthusiasm from supporters throughout the state, especially after a very tight race, we won’t be pursuing any efforts for a write-in campaign,” Huntsman said in a statement. He declined to discuss his decision.

Huntsman’s daughter, Abby, told the Deseret News her father “has always had respect for the primary process.”

The twice-elected governor’s statement comes after a group of supporters met last week to review poll results that reportedly showed Huntsman would have a slight edge in the general election over the winner of the June 30 GOP gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Backers of the effort to draft Huntsman into a write-in campaign said they still hope to change his mind and are moving forward, including with additional polling.

Alecia Williams, a volunteer on the Huntsman campaign and spokeswoman for the effort, said she hopes to have a presentation ready in the next week or two.

“We have not had contact with Gov. Huntsman and therefore, he has not seen the data or support that is building,” Williams said. “We are prepared to present it to him when we are ready and we are confident that once he sees it, he will be able to make an informed decision regarding a write-in campaign.”

She said they’re “confident that once he sees it, he will be able to fully evaluate the potential of a very winnable write-in campaign.”

Another backer, speaking on the condition of not being identified, said “we’re not giving up. We’re doing our due diligence. We want him to be fully informed of where voters sit across the spectrum.” The proponent added that because of the close race, giving Utahns another chance to vote for Huntsman “is the fair thing to do and the right thing to do.”

Neither Williams nor the backer would share specifics of the polling underway since before the close race was called a week ago, or name who is footing the bill.

The most recent results of the entirely by-mail primary election have Huntsman coming within just over 6,300 votes of Cox. The other two GOP gubernatorial candidates were former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.

Utah law allows write-in candidates to file through Aug. 31. Only the candidate can file, and write-in votes are only counted for those who do so. Cox’s chief competition in the general election is now Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor.

Cox has not commented on the possibility of facing Huntsman again in the general election.

Elected governor in 2004 and again in 2008, Huntsman left office less than a year into his second term to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama. He later ran for president and, most recently, served as President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, became governor when he stepped down. After more than a decade as governor, Herbert is not seeking reelection and has endorsed Cox.

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown praised the former governor’s campaign.

“Huntsman and his team ran a stellar campaign in a year posing some very unique and difficult challenges. He is a respected statesman and diplomat, and he showed grace and class not only throughout a first-rate campaign, but even after his concession,” Brown said.

The party chairman said there remains a role for Huntsman in the state.

“Although he has now put an end to the question of whether there will be a write-in campaign, there is no question whatsoever that he will continue to be a tremendous force for good here in Utah,” Brown said.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said a write-in campaign could help the Democratic candidate win by splitting the Republican vote, presenting a risk to the GOP. Utahns haven’t elected a Democratic governor for 40 years.

Republicans might see a Huntsman write-in bid as an “ego-driven attempt to undermine our process. I think that makes it less likely he’d be able to do those activities he’d clearly like to do,” the professor said. “He doesn’t want to be seen as the guy who got beaten and couldn’t take it and had to run as a write-in.”

The former governor’s statement should be a message to supporters that he’s not interested, Burbank said.

Still, he speculated that Huntsman likely considered it.

“It’s one of those things that as a candidate, you probably entertain because you think, ‘Oh, this is a possibility. Let me think about this.’ But I suspect that fairly quickly, he probably came to the decision that this is a long shot. It’s a really difficult thing to do. It’s going to be decisive,” Burbank said.

He pointed out that such campaigns rarely are successful, with the exception of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who a decade ago because the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win as a write-in candidate after losing that state’s GOP primary to a tea party candidate.

“Generally, we know how these things end,” Burbank said. “ In most cases it just doesn’t end well.”