SALT LAKE CITY — After a hard-fought battle to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is looking forward to a quiet summer campaign-wise and isn’t talking yet about the November general election race against Democrat Chris Peterson.
That wouldn’t be surprising in a normal election year, when general election campaigns typically don’t attract much attention until after Labor Day, once voters are done with their summer vacations and their kids are back in school.
But this year is far from normal, with concerns over COVID-19 keeping voters focused on the Herbert administration’s actions, especially as increasing numbers of cases call into question the state’s reopening after a months-long lockdown.
So Cox, put in charge of the state’s response to the deadly virus by retiring Gov. Gary Herbert, may not get much of a break in what could be a more competitive race than anticipated, even though it’s been 40 years since Utahns elected a Democrat as governor.
“There’s no playbook for 2020, so anybody who thinks they can predict what’s going to happen next hasn’t been paying attention,” said David Magleby, professor emeritus of political science at BYU. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. ...I don’t know that Spencer Cox is going to be able to lie low in this environment.”
Magleby said a recent Utah County protest against Herbert’s order that face masks be worn in schools demonstrate there’s “a very strong and strident opposition” to actions taken against the coronavirus from some conservatives, even as Peterson and others on the left call for more steps, including a statewide mask mandate.
“That puts Cox in a bit of a box,” the longtime observer of Utah politics said. The lieutenant governor, who became less visible in the administration’s response after being criticized by his Republican primary opponents for “politicizing” the virus, may now be pressured to once again take on a more prominent role, Magleby said.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said because Utahns are worried about more than politics right now, the best course for Cox may be to stay off the campaign trail until Labor Day and be seen instead as focusing on the state’s COVID-19 response.
“That is really going to be the biggest factor for him, the success there,” said Perry, who held key posts in the administrations of Herbert and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. “He sees that, which is why it’s campaigning more in terms of leadership than campaigning in terms of shaking hands.”
Perry said voters facing the “most serious of circumstances” are weighing their political choices differently.
“It’s one thing to vote for a candidate who has ideas when things are going very well,” he said. “But you have to ask a different kind of question for the leaders right now, when things are not going very well. This is about who can lead us out, which is an important political questions. It’s a filter we have to add this election cycle.”
Cox held a news conference a week after the June 30 primary, when it became clear he’d won over Huntsman as well as the other candidates who’d already conceded, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
“It was a slog for all of us,” Cox said then of the primary campaign, which for him had started a year earlier. Noting he’d been advised that was too early to get in the race, Cox pledged not to listen to suggestions he’ll win the general election easily, promising “to work just as hard toward November” as he did toward the primary.
But Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, said the lieutenant governor isn’t ready to discuss the general election.
“We aren’t commenting on the general election yet,” Austin Cox said. “After a hard-fought primary, we are working closely with (Utah GOP) Chairman (Derek) Brown and the Utah Republican Party to ensure Lt. Gov. Cox is elected Utah’s next governor. We look forward to sharing our ideas to general election voters during the fall campaign.”
Brown said the party is helping the Cox campaign lay groundwork for November, including developing strategy and voter outreach plans. But he said it could be up to two months before voters start seeing traditional campaigning, such as candidate signs and billboards.
“We’ve been through a very high-profile primary with the Republican Party and I think voters sometimes appreciate a little bit of rest and a break of sorts before the next cycle continues,” Brown said, although he expects voters will do more research about the candidates because of the virus.
That favors Cox, the party chairman said.
“I think he’s done a remarkable job of leading one of the most important task forces that we’ve ever had as a state over the past couple of months so I’m sure he’ll continue to be an integral part of that process,” Brown said. “I’m sure he’ll be involved. What that looks like remains to be seen.”
Peterson, who initially supported leaving mandating masks largely up to local governments until Utah’s virus cases began to spike, didn’t have much to say about his opponent’s absence from the campaign trail.
“I like the guy. I mean, he’s a nice guy so I hesitate to say critical things or run down his campaign,” the University of Utah law professor said. “I hope that he’s using the lull in his campaign to try to focus on getting the coronavirus under control. I don’t have any sense of that ... but I’m not sure I would know.”
Peterson said he’ll continue to raise concerns about how the state is dealing with rising instances of COVID-19, as he did at a news conference last week where he labeled the state’s response so far “inadequate” and urged Herbert and Cox to make wearing masks mandatory for all Utahns and more.
“I’m not trying to politicize things, but the government is there to protect people, especially when they’re in harms’ way. Right now, we need to get the virus under control,” the Democratic candidate said. “I want to pressure them to try to do the right thing. ...I am extremely frustrated. I’m just trying to be polite.”
Real estate developer Peter Corroon, a former Utah Democratic Party Chairman and Salt Lake County mayor who ran a tough race for governor against Herbert in 2010, said the Republican administration’s handling of COVID-19 presents an opportunity for Peterson.
“The Republican strategy is generally, ignore the Democrats and hopefully they’ll go away at some point,” Corroon said, something he doesn’t believe will work this year. “I think people are expecting more from their government leaders these days because of the coronavirus.”
Cox’s role in the state’s response, he said, puts him in the spotlight as voters evaluate their circumstances in the crisis.
“People tend to vote with their pocketbooks so if the economy is doing well, then people oftentimes aren’t paying a lot of attention to the politics. But when times are tough and people are suffering, that’s when they start looking at government officials and saying, ‘Who are these people and what are they doing for me lately,’” Corroon said.
His advice to Peterson is to “keep hammering. People get tired of politics pretty quickly but I do think it’s important for the Democratic candidate to point out areas that aren’t being handled well and how the Democratic candidate would do things differently.”
Despite the likelihood of “all politics all the time” through the general election, Magleby said the governor’s office isn’t likely to fall into Democratic hands given the dominance of the GOP in Utah, although the effects of Republican President Donald Trump’s increasingly divisive reelection bid could tighten the race.
“It’s not a runaway for Trump in Utah right now,” Magleby said. “If that were to hold, then I think it could be a much closer race.”
J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s Saboto’s Crystal Ball, also said the president’s bid for a second term is a factor in the governor’s race. The ratings entity shifted Utah from a “safe Republican” state in the presidential race to the more competitive “likely Republican.”
Coleman told the Deseret News that could be a boost to Peterson and other Utah Democrats on the general election ballot.
“At the presidential level, I would expect Utah to remain with Trump, but he could have a weak enough performance at the top of the ballot that it could potentially trickle down to some of these Democratic races as well,” the analyst said.
Even so, the Utah governor’s race is still rated as “safe Republican” by Saboto’s Crystal Ball. Still, Coleman said, the Cox campaign should recognize that the race may be turn out to be tougher for a Republican candidate this year.
“I think it would be unwise for them to kind of get lazy. I know they won a pretty visible primary, but I wouldn’t take anything for granted today if I were them,” he said. “Just because Utah, at the presidential level, Trump can carry it but he’s not going to be particularly strong there.”