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Why national eyes are on Utah Gov. Cox for COVID-19 bargaining, votes against Biden, Trump

Politico: Gov. Spencer Cox’s tone sets him apart from his fellow Republicans navigating ‘post-Donald Trump politics’

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox wears a mask with the Utah state flag during a COVID-19 briefing in April 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox arrives for a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Cox is getting more national attention for his nuanced political takes and how he’s been wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is getting more national attention for his nuanced political takes and how he’s been wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a lead story posted on Wednesday, Politico described the governor’s tempered “tone” on topics ranging from COVID-19 vaccinations to social issues as what “sets Cox apart from many of his Republican peers navigating their post-Donald Trump politics.”

Cox discussed with the national outlet Utahns’ feelings about the nation’s past and present presidents. Cox didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, backed Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, but didn’t vote for Trump or now-President Joe Biden in the 2020 general election.

“Most Utahns aren’t as interested in the culture wars and some of the things that divide (the country),” Cox told the national outlet.

“We work really hard to find common ground. We work hard and have said before that the Republican Party in Utah is big enough for Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and we really believe that. I’m close with both of them.”

Still, Utah voted overwhelmingly for Trump in both elections, even though many Republican Utahns grappled with his brash style. Cox said that’s not surprising.

“If the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and Joe Biden, then Republicans will vote Republican. Donald Trump finished lower than any Republican in the past 40 years in overall share of the vote, so most people will tell you that they like a lot of the policies that were accomplished but people told me that they didn’t like his Twitter account and they didn’t like the personal attacks. That’s certainly more the style here with the Utah GOP.”

As for who will run for president on the Republican ticket in 2024? Cox said he didn’t have any good guesses, saying there’s no clear favorite in the eyes of Utahns.

“In politics, a couple years is a lifetime. While I feel pretty confident in predicting what will happen at the state level, at the national level I’m at a loss. I was wrong in 2016 and I don’t know that I have any confidence in what’s going to happen ... I don’t think anyone predicted that Donald Trump would have won the nomination or the presidency in 2016 and so it may be Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who is the dark horse leader for 2024 running as a Republican or a Democrat. So I really have no idea. I don’t think there’s a clear favorite in Utah.”

Cox, a Republican who has received national attention for his calls for political civility, was one of seven governors Biden picked to serve on a national bipartisan board, the Council of Governors, tasked with strengthening federal and state collaboration on major national security issues.

Gov. Spencer Cox, center, throws his hands in the air as he enters the House chamber after jokingly being introduced as Gov. Gary Herbert by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, at the end of the 2021 legislative session in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox, center, throws his hands in the air as he enters the House chamber after jokingly being introduced as Gov. Gary Herbert by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, at the end of the 2021 legislative session in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

‘It could have been worse’

Cox also discussed how he’s navigated tricky waters with a GOP-controlled Utah Legislature that pushed several pieces of legislation to pull back some of his executive emergency powers. One law, nicknamed the “endgame” bill, ended Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions and limited government officials’ ability to issue new orders, including universal mask mandates. The law requires the orders to be approved by legislative bodies.

Utah is now on a list of four other states with statewide prohibitions on mask mandates that are being investigated by the federal Department of Education for whether their bans violate the civil rights of students with disabilities.

“It could have been worse,” Cox said about the legislation.

Asked why he signed the bill, Cox said he and his team weren’t “thrilled with the bill,” but “we were able to get significantly more time before the endgame.”

“I honestly believe we saved lives by doing it that way and so, although not perfect, it was better than the alternative. There was no delta variant at that time. ... So hindsight and all those things, knowing what we knew then, getting those extra weeks was really important to getting people vaccinated.”

Today, Cox continues to grapple with the Utah Legislature’s control over state officials’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in real time. As the toll on the state’s hospital capacity reaches new highs amid the highly contagious delta variant’s spread, Cox has been wrestling with whether to give school districts more streamlined tools to clamp down on COVID-19 outbreaks, including the ability to temporarily require masks once school case rates reach a certain threshold.

The Deseret News on Tuesday shed light on conversations Cox has been having behind the scenes with legislative leaders about the issue. Wednesday and Thursday, the governor is scheduled to meet with lawmakers in caucus meetings to pitch two public health orders he’s proposed — or field ideas from lawmakers if they don’t like his.