Staking his re-election bid on a comparably robust economic recovery, Gov. Gary Herbert won a comfortable victory Tuesday, his second in two years ensuring his first full term in the office.
Herbert argued that you don’t fire a coach when the team is winning, and boasted that the state’s economy has been among the strongest in the country. Voters rallied behind him and propelled him to a huge lead. With nearly 100 percent of the vote counted in unofficial results, Herbert led Democrat Peter Cooke by a margin of more than two-to-one.
Herbert, speaking minutes after President Barack Obama locked up a second term in the White House, got cheers from a Republican crowd when the governor promised that Utah would be a beacon to the rest of the country.
"The best hope for America is the states," Herbert said. "Utah will be the one to lead by example."
Cooke criticized Herbert for failing to bring Utah up from the lowest per-pupil education spending in the country, a trend he said threatens the state’s long-term economic health. He promised to invest about $2 billion into schools, but didn’t provide details on how to fund the ambitious goal.
The retired two-star general was unable to crack Herbert’s hold on the office, and the governor raised about $2 million more for his campaign than Cooke.
Herbert was polling at about 70 percent coming into the final days of campaigning — a dominant margin, but shy of the 78 percent that his predecessor, Jon Huntsman received in his 2008 re-election.
"I think Gary Herbert ran a really good campaign in this election and I don’t want to take anything away from that," said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, "but at the same time the realities of the partisan makeup of Utah are such that Herbert was going to win this election barring a major misstep during the campaign,"
Herbert said last week that, if he did indeed win re-election by a comfortable margin, he has a mandate from the voters to continue the policies he has put in place on the economy, education and energy.
Cooke said he feels like he ran a constructive, substantive campaign and focused attention on the need for a healthy two-party system in the state.
"We feel we’ve run a good campaign, one that really brought attention to some issues that have been neglected over the years," Cooke said. "We felt like we led the discussion on the issues and offered some clear opportunities for the state to move forward."
Herbert inherited the governorship in 2009, when Huntsman became U.S. Ambassador to China. He won re-election by a wide margin in 2010, beating Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, despite a nagging scandal over a $1.1 billion road contract that went to a donor.
That episode, as well as a massive data breach at the Health Department and a procurement scandal at the state’s liquor agency, were issues again in 2012, but never seriously damaged Herbert.
The governor has not ruled out another bid for re-election in 2016.
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