After months of signaling he was all-but-in the gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox became the first heavyweight to announce his 2020 campaign.
It was a slick, basically flawless launch, that occupied a prominent news slot statewide and bounced around social media all day long.
We don’t have much polling to go by, but back in January The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics polled just Republicans and found that he was basically neck-and-neck with former Rep. Jason Chaffetz — 28% for Cox to 27% for Chaffetz — among the likeliest candidates at the time.
The next closest in the field was Rep. Rob Bishop at 10%. Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes was at 4%.
Since then, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton has expressed interest and, oh, by the way, so has former Gov. Jon Huntsman.
So the only data we have to go by is dated and incomplete, but it might tell us a little about how his opponents could bring Cox back down to earth and maybe even beat him — and we’ll look at how to do that now, as we will with other candidates who join the race.
Here are three steps challengers could take to beat Spencer Cox:
Step 1: Follow Donald Trump’s playbook
No, I don’t mean count on Russian-backed social media propaganda to tear him down. What Trump does well is excite hardcore Republicans.
Keep in mind, for all intents and purposes, these gubernatorial candidates are not campaigning to all voters — just the registered Republicans, since whoever wins the party’s nomination is basically assured to cruise to a win in November. When we asked Republicans whom they supported back in January, there was an interesting and somewhat obvious trend.
Forty-two percent of self-described “very conservative” Republicans supported Chaffetz compared to 19% for Cox. Move along the political spectrum toward the middle and the numbers flip. Among “somewhat conservative” Republicans, 39% supported the lieutenant governor, while 15% supported Chaffetz.
Cox would not have much of a shot if conservative state delegates still control the nominating process. Since he can collect signatures to get on the ballot, he has a chance.
So to beat Cox, run a campaign to the right of him, fire up the base with red meat, paint him as a squishy moderate in Republican clothing and count on the most strident conservatives turning out and carrying the day.
Step 2: Punch him in the mouth*
*Not literally … but … as philosopher and former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Cox has maintained a squeaky-clean image as a family man and an “aw shucks” rural kid who says the right things. And he’s made clear he hopes to take the high road during his campaign; so you’ve got to knock him off it.
Maybe you paint him as an ambitious climber who went from county commissioner to serve a year in the Utah House to being plucked as lieutenant governor, and now he wants the top job. His own policy positions are vague and he’s unproven — his last real campaign being for Sanpete County commissioner in 2008.
His opponents also could suggest his talk isn’t backed up with real leadership. He became the point man for Operation Rio Grande, the big initiative focused on homelessness, which began as Hughes’ concept. He has taken a high-profile role at the head of the governor’s suicide task force, which was built atop the Legislature’s efforts.
Maybe it won’t stick, but his opponents will need to knock some luster off Cox’s golden boy image.
Step 3: Embrace The Donald
So, if an opponent is going to fire up the base like Trump and go on the attack like Trump, does he or she have to support Trump?
You might be thinking that Trump’s unpopular in Utah by Republican standards. Why go all-in with him?
Here’s why: Remember when we talked about the target demographic, those “very conservative” Republican voters? They love Trump. Their support is consistently hovering close to 90 percent in poll after poll.
Cox, meantime, has called him “the worst of what our great country stands for” and refused to vote for him.
In a presidential election year, supporting Trump will create daylight between Cox and the conservative voters — and that could be a liability.
Who could put this plan into action? A number of Cox’s rivals. It is basically the model that Chaffetz used when he came out of nowhere to beat Rep. Chris Cannon in a Republican primary. It also fits Hughes’ rough-and-tumble political style.
All of that changes, though, if Ambassador Huntsman — who is well-known, well-funded and generally popular (especially among the same voters Cox is courting) — comes back from Moscow and runs for another term as governor. So stay tuned.
Editor’s note: Ambassador Jon Huntsman is the brother of Salt Lake Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman.