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Utah GOP gubernatorial race called for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. concedes in tight race

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Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and his wife, Abby, greet supporters as they arrive at his election night event at the Basin Drive-In Theatre in Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County, on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Cox is running for the GOP nomination for governor.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s GOP gubernatorial primary was called Monday for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox by The Associated Press after new results showed him continuing to hold onto a lead over former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Cox, who’s scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday afternoon, said in a statement that he and his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, “are humbled by the vote of confidence from the people of Utah in selecting us as the Republican nominee for governor and lieutenant governor.”

He said “as farm kids from Sanpete County,” he and his wife, Abby, “never dreamed of having this opportunity. If elected in November, we will take our rural values of hard work, honesty and responsibility to the governor’s office each day.”

Cox, who continues to commute daily from his family home in Fairview, Sanpete County, said Huntsman conceded the race in what he described in a tweet as a “gracious call.”

Huntsman said in a statement that he and his wife, Mary Kaye, “accept the will of the people, as is our tradition as Americans. The visions put forward for Utah were very different, and regret that I will not be leading the efforts in moving us toward a new horizon.”

The twice-elected governor said they were “encouraged by many to apply our experience from four decades of public service to help our home state reach its destiny and full potential. Today, I am as sure as ever that Utah can become not just the crossroads of the West, but the crossroads of the world.”

Huntsman did not mention Cox in his statement, but did refer to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. He, his wife and members of his campaign staff all tested positive for the coronavirus in the final weeks of the campaign and spent time in quarantine.

Cox had led in what was a four-candidate race since the primary last Tuesday. Some of the lieutenant governor’s supporters were ready to declare victory last week and his campaign analysts were said to be anticipating winning by about 7,000 votes.

Most of the additional ballots counted Monday came from Salt Lake County, enabling Huntsman to gain some ground after trailing by some 11,000 votes much of last week. But the former governor was still behind by more than 9,000 votes, with 34.6% of the vote to 36.4% for Cox.

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, the other two Republicans in the race to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert, both conceded by last Wednesday. Herbert is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.

Because of COVID-19, the election was conducted entirely by mail and ballots were allowed to be postmarked on Election Day instead of a day earlier. There are also changes to how ballots were processed, including quarantining them for at least 24 hours.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said there are still about 16,600 ballots to be counted in the county. To request a recount after the July 27 final state canvass, Huntsman’s vote total would have to be within 0.25% of Cox’s.

Cox also said he believes “the results of this election prove that negative campaigns do not work in Utah. We feel blessed to live in the greatest state in America and invited all Utahns to join us in ensuring it always remains that way.”

He will face the Democratic nominee in November, University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, who pledged that if elected, he “will work for fair taxes, respect ballot measure results, and build a business-friendly economy that treats all Utahns with dignity.” 

Huntsman’s loss made national news. Elected in 2004 and 2008, Huntsman left office less than a year into his second term to become U.S. ambassador to China under Democratic President Barack Obama and later briefly made a bid for the White House the same year now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney became the GOP presidential nominee.

President Donald Trump reportedly considered Huntsman for secretary of state before naming him U.S. ambassador to Russia. After months of speculation about his political future, Huntsman jumped into the governor’s race last November, shortly after returning from Moscow.

“All of those would indicate, you would think, that Huntsman is a shoo-in for this,” David Magleby, professor emeritus of political science at BYU, said of Huntsman’s experience, making his loss, “a major national surprise. It’s a national story not just a Utah story.”

Magleby said Utah voters apparently couldn’t forgive Huntsman for stepping down as governor more than a decade ago.

“The specter of him having left office haunted his campaign. I’m not sure he ever solved that problem,” the longtime professor said. “In the minds of voters, it was a question of, ‘Why do you want this now if you went on to greater and bigger things?’”

Even before the race was called for Cox, it was becoming clear Huntsman had little hope of pulling off a victory despite efforts by former Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis and others to encourage Democrats and unaffiliated voters to register as Republicans to vote in the GOP’s closed primary.

Dabakis, who held off publicly endorsing Huntsman until after the election, said he believes the race ended up pitting urban versus rural voters.

“It turned out we didn’t get as many votes as we would have hoped but we came pretty damn close,” he said. “This is our way to fight back.”

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it’s not clear what’s next for Huntsman.

“This is an impressive victory for Spencer Cox over a former governor who was very popular while in office. Cox’s strength in rural areas and in Utah County seems to have made the difference, offsetting Huntsman’s strength in Salt Lake County and with newly registered primary voters,” Karpowitz said.

“It’s a remarkable success for Cox and raises questions about what Huntsman’s political future will be.”

In his statement, Huntsman said only that “public service is in our blood and whatever our next chapter may hold, I am confident we will find a way to continue to contribute to the good of our community. “

Utah GOP leaders said the election generated record turnout of over a half-million voters, and said the party “is fully committed to uniting not only behind Spencer Cox and Deidre Henderson, but all of our nominees, to ensure historic Republican victories this November.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, congratulated Cox on his primary win.

“As lieutenant governor, he has worked closely with Gov. Herbert to guide the state through the COVID-19 pandemic as head of the Utah Coronavirus Task Force, ensuring both the safety of Utahns and a powerful economic rebound,” Abbott said.

 “Lt. Gov. Cox’s priorities of improving education, boosting infrastructure, removing unnecessary red tape and minimizing taxes and government make him the ideal leader for the Beehive State. We look forward to celebrating his victory in November.” 

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent over $120,000 to support Cox, also offered congratulations to the new nominee.

“Utah is thriving because of leaders like Spencer Cox and Deidre Henderson, and voters across the state are confident in their ability to lead — especially in the face of adversity,” the committee’s president, Austin Chambers, said.

Cox, who was the first candidate to get in the governor’s race, managed to visit all of the state’s cities and towns before the primary election despite also being named by the governor to head the state’s COVID-19 task force. Herbert, who was Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, endorsed Cox.

“The next four years will be critically important to Utah’s future,” Cox said. “We must rebuild our economy, restore the joy of teaching for our educators, and bring new opportunities for smart growth to both the Wasatch Front and rural Utah.”