Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s Republican and Democratic challengers share one attack in common, they disagree with his “Disagree Better” campaign.

The Republican governor has made the promotion of healthy dialogue his theme as chair of the National Governors Association. Cox is up for reelection this year and holds a dominant lead over other GOP candidates in early polling. But both his Republican and Democratic opponents see the incumbent governor’s chosen message as an electoral liability to exploit.

Former Utah GOP chair Carson Jorgensen said the governor’s emphasis on productive disagreement ignores the reality of irreconcilable ideological differences. State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, framed the endeavor as a way to avoid taking stands on controversial issues. And state Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, felt Cox’s admonitions meant little during a legislative session dominated by a Republican supermajority.

But King said he is willing to appear in a disagree better style advertisement with the governor — like the one Cox filmed with his Democratic opponent in 2020 — under certain conditions.

What is Gov. Cox’s ‘Disagree Better’ initiative?

In an interview at the end of the 2024 legislative session, Cox said disagreeing better doesn’t mean giving the other side everything it wants. Instead, it often means upholding fair processes and treating everyone with respect, regardless of their viewpoints. Cox also pushed back against claims that his conciliatory approach to politics means ceding ground to partisan opposition in a statement to the Deseret News.

“Disagree Better isn’t about abandoning your core beliefs or going along to get along,” a Cox campaign spokesperson said on Wednesday. “It’s about treating your opponents with respect even as you debate issues on which you disagree passionately. Gov. Cox is an example of this. Under his watch Utahns have received more than $1 billion in tax cuts, seen increased education options for Utah students, and empowered parents as they protect their kids from the harms of social media. Gov. Cox believes it’s possible to be a fighter for conservative policies without treating those who disagree with him with contempt.”

Since taking up the mantle of chairman of the National Governors Association in July, Cox has spearheaded a series of ads involving bipartisan pairings of governors and elected officials sharing how they can work together despite their different worldviews. He has also hosted multiple conferences to promote civil discourse and educate the nation’s governors on addressing the issue of political polarization.

Cox brought “Disagree Better” to Washington, D.C., in February, where he headlined a forum with Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, spoke at George Washington University and met with President Joe Biden, who praised the “Disagree Better” initiative.

Why do Cox’s primary opponents disagree with ‘Disagree Better’?

But this event, in addition to Cox’s warm welcome when Biden visited Utah in August, was taken by Jorgensen as an example of where “Disagree Better” can go too far. He said it was wrong for the Republican governor of Utah to show such cordiality to the Democratic president of the United States “while there’s an invasion at the southern border and where there’s so many things going wrong.”

“What’s wrong is wrong, and what’s right is right. And those are the things that we should be disagreeing over,” Jorgensen told the Deseret News on Wednesday. “We shouldn’t compromise our morals or our values for the sake of disagreement. And that’s what we see far too much of.”

Lyman, who has made criticisms of “Disagree Better” a central piece of his gubernatorial campaign on social media, said Cox’s initiative undermines conservative goals because ultimately “politics is about conflict, not about compromise.”

“Instead of trying to decide what the truth is, through some sort of negotiation, we need to just start with a basis of truth, and then we can disagree about how to address the challenges,” Lyman said in an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday.

Democratic challenger says Cox doesn’t “Disagree Better”

Unlike Lyman or Jorgensen, the leading Democratic candidate for Utah governor says the incumbent needs to “Disagree Better” more, not less.

King has appropriated an amended version of Cox’s slogan, saying elected officials need to go beyond civil rhetoric and disagree “for the better.” During his final session of his eight terms as a member of the Utah House, King said increasing partisanship and extremism trickled down from the federal level.

“No matter the intention, the ‘Disagree Better’ initiative rings hollow when, in practice, it means being a rubber stamp for an overreaching and controlling legislature,” King told the Deseret News on Wednesday. “Our governor has a track record of complicity with extremism masked in loving but dismissive language. Disagreeing better is easy for him because he doesn’t disagree at all. We shouldn’t simply disagree more civilly and kindly. We should discuss and disagree for the sake of improving the lives of everyday Utahns — for the better.”

While the Legislature was united across party lines on more than 80% of legislation this year, Utah Democrats said this was one their toughest sessions ever because of high profile bills dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public institutions, privacy laws in bathrooms affecting transgender individuals and energy policies that preserve coal-fired power plants.

Cox has, or is expected to sign, nearly all of the laws passed by the state’s Republican supermajority Legislature. He has defended his support of bills like the overhaul of state DEI offices, calling Utah lawmakers thoughtful in their approach to controversial issues.

When Cox first ran for governor in 2020, after serving as lieutenant governor for seven years, he made headlines for a video he made with Democratic nominee Chris Peterson. In the clip, the two candidates express their shared commitment to democratic values and mutual respect.

When asked whether he would be open to a similar show of solidarity, despite his ideological differences with Cox, King said he would be. Although the final product would have to emphasize the importance of having both sides included in crafting policy solutions, not just in civil conversations.

Lyman also said he would appear in an ad with Cox. “Absolutely, yes,” he said.

Jorgensen was less interested in the option. “No, probably not,” he said. “It just feels disingenuous.”