It finally happened.
As The Salt Lake Tribune’s Washington bureau chief Thomas Burr first reported Tuesday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sent the president his resignation letter as U.S. ambassador to Russia, effective Oct. 3.
It sets in motion the chain of events Utah political circles have been buzzing about for months — the possibility that Huntsman would return to the Beehive State and announce another run for governor.
If he pulls it off, he would be the first governor in Utah history to serve nonconsecutive terms. The consensus among the politically connected I talked to is that he’s seriously considering another run and several said he is almost guaranteed to get into the race.
A poll by the Salt Lake Chamber last week showed Huntsman neck and neck with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox statewide. Though winning the Republican primary is an entirely different challenge and Cox was leading among Republicans.
When the topic of Huntsman returning to run for governor comes up, the question that invariably follows is: Why on earth would he want to do that?
He was asked that question by his supporters when he was in town recently. His answer is this — as he and his wife, Mary Kaye, talked about life after Moscow, they discussed what job they had enjoyed the most and where they had accomplished the most, and that was as governor.
Winning the office is another story. We’ll dig into Huntsman’s vulnerabilities more if and when he announces. (This also seems like a decent place to make something clear: The Tribune is owned by Paul Huntsman, Jon Huntsman’s brother. But that isn’t going to color what I write about the former governor, if he runs or if he wins.)
For now, the most interesting discussion is: How might Gov. Huntsman 2.0 be different from the original version we saw from 2001 to 2009? How might the past 10 years as ambassador to China, as a short-lived presidential aspirant, and most recently as ambassador to Russia change him?
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1998, told me Tuesday he drew on his experience as ambassador when he was elected governor — a period that overlapped with Huntsman’s tenure.
“I think being an ambassador is an enormous asset,” Richardson said. “Having been ambassador made me aware of the importance of diplomacy, of working with those you disagree with.”
Honing those skills with foreign adversaries makes it easier to work with political opponents at a statehouse, he said. It could also open the door to foreign trade opportunities, particularly in China, Richardson said.
It’s a role that has become increasingly important over the past two decades for every governor in every state. Gov. Gary Herbert, for example, has led trade missions to Canada and Mexico, Europe, South Korea and Taiwan, Israel and Jordan. He leaves next month for missions to Hong Kong and Tokyo.
The goal is to pair Utah companies with foreign trading partners. In 2018, Utah exported nearly $14.4 billion in goods, a 24 percent increase from the year before. An estimated quarter of Utah jobs are tied to foreign trade.
Huntsman can help there. The question, however, is if Huntsman can rewire himself to the day-to-day issues in Utah. The knock on him last time he was in office was that he wasn’t a details guy, that he wasn’t actively engaged in the administrative aspects of office or some of the mundane issues that work through the Legislature, not to mention campaign events.
After being at the fulcrum of the United States’ most important geopolitical relationship, is he going to be excited about, say, turkey farm regulations? Can he pivot from Moscow to Moroni?
And politically, there are tougher questions. Will GOP voters — the ones who matter if he hopes to emerge from the Republican primary — forgive him for some of his moderate views while in office on topics such as climate change and civil unions (controversial at the time)?
Will he be able to smooth over bailing right after he was re-elected to go work for Barack Obama? And will that be more difficult for him to explain than being willing to carry water for the nearly-as-unpopular Donald Trump?
In that sense, trying to navigate the choppy waters of Utah politics may be a true test of his skill as a diplomat.