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What went wrong with former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s third run for Utah governor?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. gives a television interview by Zoom at his campaign office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. gives a television interview by Zoom at his campaign office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. returned to Utah from Moscow last fall after serving as President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Russia and jumped into the governor’s race, many assumed the popular, twice-elected leader would be tough — if not impossible — to beat.

But Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who’d already been a gubernatorial candidate for six months when Huntsman announced he was trying for a third term, largely stayed out in front throughout the race and now has secured the Republican nomination by a slim margin, a week after the June 30 state primary.

“Lots of people should have voted for him. He’s an incredibly talented and qualified person. He’s literally had the job before,” Cox told reporters in his first news conference Tuesday, a day after Huntsman joined former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright in conceding the race.

The lieutenant governor, who was declared the winner by The Associated Press Monday with a little over a 9,000-vote lead, said he sees the closeness of the race “as a very positive thing. We believe that we have a lot in common with Ambassador Huntsman, and a lot of the things (voters) were looking for in him, they’ll also find in us.”

For Huntsman and his supporters, the loss is difficult to understand.

Neither Huntsman nor his campaign are talking publicly yet about his defeat. In a statement issued after the race was called Monday, he expressed “regret that I will not be leading the efforts in moving us towards a new horizon” and noted it “was anything but a typical campaign season” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only did the virus put an end to in-person campaigning for months, Huntsman, his wife, and members of his campaign all came down with the novel coronavirus in the final weeks before the election and had to be quarantined.

Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, who backed Huntsman, said polls have shown Utahns viewed Huntsman more favorably than most politicians, except for his former lieutenant governor, Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.

Anderson also pointed to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in April that found voters trusted Huntsman the most among the gubernatorial candidates to lead the state in a crisis, even though Cox headed up the state’s task force on dealing with the outbreak.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Anderson said. “I think Jon ran a great campaign. I think his TV spots were very effective. I think he emphasized his experience and his leadership, everything he could bring to bear to solve the crisis.”

He dismissed talk that after spending nearly a decade out of state, maybe Huntsman’s “homecoming wasn’t as welcome as he wanted” and said he believes voters were satisfied that the former governor was here to stay after returning to fulfill a family legacy of public service.

Face-to-face

Still, Anderson and others said Huntsman would have been better able to rekindle his relationship with Utahns had it not been for the pandemic.

The “big questions” voters had for Huntsman — why was he running again and, perhaps more importantly, would he leave office a second time — needed to be answered face-to-face, said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a former Huntsman administration official.

Huntsman stepped down as governor in 2009, less than a year into his second term, to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, then ran briefly for president in 2012 before taking on roles with national groups like No Labels, which promotes bipartisanship, and the Atlantic Council, a global affairs think tank.

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

“These are the kind of questions that you answer in town halls, and to people directly. He was not able to do any of that. Then also, he got the virus himself, which dramatically impacted his campaign and his ability to engage with the voters,” Perry said. “Jon Huntsman needed to reconnect and the circumstances made it exceptionally difficult.”

Voters may have forgotten “he left to serve as one of the most popular governors in the country. In a traditional campaign, he would have spent his time helping voters to remember why,” Perry said. “He was just not able to engage them in the way he did before, and the way that helped him win his elections by such large margins.”

In 2004, Huntsman won with nearly 58% of the vote despite facing a formidable Democratic opponent, Scott Matheson Jr., whose father, the late Scott Matheson, was the last Democrat elected governor in Utah 40 years ago. In 2008, Huntsman bested a little-known challenger, Bob Springmeyer, with nearly 78% of the vote.

His past popularity and experience wasn’t enough, given who Huntsman faced in the GOP primary, said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the Cook Report, a Washington, D.C.-based online newsletter that analyzes and rates campaigns nationwide.

“If he had been running against someone that maybe was a political novice, that argument might have worked,” Taylor said. But any advantage was “muted,” she said, given that Cox was already lieutenant governor and had Herbert’s backing — even though Huntsman handed over the office to Herbert in 2009.

“With it being a crowded race, I think that when you are a former governor and when you are struggling in a way, especially with such a large financial advantage, ultimately it’s a referendum on you,” she said, referring to Huntsman’s family fortune that has helped fund the Huntsman Cancer Institute and other philanthropic endeavors.

‘Hard to go home’

Also working against Huntsman, Taylor said, was “a good bit of skepticism,” especially among more conservative Republicans, about his leaving Utah to work for a Democratic president. She also said Huntsman had said he would not run for governor again, telling Politico in 2014 that he would be “fool-hearted” to try for a third term.

“It’s certainly nothing new in politics for politicians to reverse decisions,” Taylor said, but voters had plenty of other choices in a field that at one point included eight Republicans. And, because “this is a far more conservative Republican Party than back when he was in office” they were already looking for a less moderate candidate.

In Cox, she said, voters saw a conservative who “still offered that sort of civility and political experience as well.”

Taylor said she had expected Huntsman to win easily, even though she said it was “puzzling” to see him running for governor again since that’s not a typical trajectory after serving in two high-profile ambassadorships and being what she termed a “credible contender” for the White House.

That’s pushed Huntsman’s unsuccessful bid for a third term into the national spotlight, she said.

“It is notable when they go back and they lose the position they once had,” Taylor said. “In the era of politics we have right now, it’s hard to go home again.”

Neither the Cook Report nor the University of Virginia’s “Saboto’s Crystal Ball” rated Utah’s Republican primary race, but both have put Utah’s governorship in the “solid Republican” category for the November general election, when Cox faces Democrat Chris Peterson, a U. law professor.

J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst for “Saboto’s Crystal Ball,” said he was surprised, too, that Huntsman ran.

“Being a former governor isn’t really a guarantee that you’re going to get back into office,” Coleman said, citing others who have tried and failed, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also ran for president in 2012 and was unable to secure the GOP nomination for a third term as governor six years later.

“He was sort of like Huntsman in that maybe he had some time on the national stage,” Coleman said of Pawlenty, who was considered as a running mate by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “That type of experience isn’t what it’s kind of cracked up to be.”

Runoff election?

Dave Hansen, a former Utah GOP chairman who ran campaigns for former Sen. Orrin Hatch and many others, including Davis County Commissioner Bob Stephenson’s unsuccessful bid this year in the party’s 1st Congressional District primary, said voters seemed to be willing to overlook experience for “a bright, shiny, new thing.”

Hansen said had there been a runoff election in the governor’s race, Huntsman would be the nominee.

“The system is screwed up,” he said, since nearly 64% of the votes cast in the four-way GOP governor’s race were for one of the candidates who lost. As of the latest count Tuesday, Cox had just over 36% of the vote, to just under 35% for Huntsman, 21% for Hughes and less than 8% for Wright.

The solution is either a run-off election among the top two vote-getters in a primary or returning to just the caucus and convention system to select candidates. This year, party delegates advanced Cox and Hughes to the primary ballot but Cox, Huntsman and Wright all also gathered voter signatures to secure a spot on the ballot.

Now what?

What’s next for Huntsman remains to be seen.

If Democrat Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, wins the White House in November, Taylor said she could see Huntsman being tapped for an advisory role related to the international stage, where Utah’s former governor continues to command respect from both parties.

Biden is viewed as someone “who would want some bipartisan reach” in his administration, Taylor said, but serving in a Democratic administration as a secretary of state, a post that has been seen as Huntsman’s ultimate goal, “may be a stretch,”

Anderson, however, said he expects Huntsman to remain in Utah.

“I think Jon has a great future. I think he will come up with a new way to serve and a new way to provide service and to make a difference here in Utah and perhaps the country,” Anderson said. “It could be getting involved in the community, in a nonprofit. It could be being a thought leader.”

Chris Karpowtiz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it would be easier for Huntsman to use his knowledge of China and Russia to help guide U.S. policy from Washington, D.C., or even New York City.

As far as another run for elected office, Karpowitz said Huntsman could consider a U.S. Senate race, but likely only if fellow Republicans Romney or Sen. Mike Lee don’t seek reelection. Lee, who was Huntsman’s general counsel as governor, endorsed him in the gubernatorial race.

But the political science professor said “there are lots of ways to make a difference and serve your country other than electoral politics.”

“I think the questions are about his electoral future, not about his ability to make a difference in some meaningful way more broadly.”

So, Karpowitz said, “it will be fascinating to see what happens, what he does next. I mean, I think we’re all eager to see what the next chapter holds for Jon Huntsman because clearly, there is more that he would like to do and can do.”