Robert Gehrke: Businessman Jeff Burningham is the 2nd Republican to enter Utah’s race for governor — here’s how to beat him

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Republican Jeff Burningham holds a press conference announcing he's throwing his hat into the ring for Utah governor in 2020, becoming the second Republican candidate to officially enter what could become a crowded field Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Utah County businessman Jeff Burningham became the second Republican to jump into what ultimately could be a crowded scramble to replace Gov. Gary Herbert.

It’s not exactly a surprise. Burningham started raising money back in February and has been lining up staff, traveling the state and laying the groundwork to run as an outsider who will shake up government.

And did I mention he’s raising money? He has racked up nearly $600,000 so far (which includes a $107,000 loan from his own pocket), a lot of it coming from partners and friends in Utah County business circles.

Robert Gehrke

He’ll need a lot of money if he is to compete in a field with big-names. There is a long list of wealthy entrepreneurs and outsiders who have entered the political fray over the years, very few who have been successful.

As I did when Spencer Cox got into the race (and will do when future candidates join the field), here is how Burningham’s rivals can make sure he remains employed in the private sector after the 2020 election.

Ignore him for as long as possible

Who is Jeff Burningham? If voters are asking that question in six months, his opponents will have done their job.

Burningham is running as a guy who started his first business fresh out of Brigham Young University, sold it for millions and became a venture capitalist, helping provide seed capital for several successful companies.

But because that kind of work doesn’t exactly make one a household name, his biggest challenge is going to be breaking through the noise and getting on voters’ radar. That’s not easy, as the roughly 648 Democratic presidential candidates who nobody knows can attest.

The best thing his competitors can do is to not help him out. Don’t mention him, don’t criticize him and basically pretend he isn’t there as long as possible. There’s no gain and only potential loss in engaging.

The tactic doesn’t work forever. Eventually, all the candidates will end up on a debate stage together, at which point they should …

Make him talk about specifics as much as possible

The problem that political outsiders inevitably face is the steep learning curve. If you look at his launch video and his campaign website, it’s all about terms like “self-made” and “job creator” and “game-changing leadership.”

That will fly for now, but sooner or later, he’ll have to give voters specifics, and against a field of experienced policymakers — like Cox, and probably former House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and even former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — Burningham runs the risk of being exposed for what he doesn’t know.

Take, for example, the closest thing to a concrete policy proposal he mentioned at his campaign launch Tuesday — auditing the entire state government. That probably sounds like it would be good job for... the state auditor.

And it is. Every year, the auditor publishes the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the State of Utah. If you haven’t read it, you should — then tell me what it says, because I haven’t read it, either.

There also happens to be performance audits done by the state auditor, the legislative auditor and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

The point is, if Burningham’s opponents can make him talk about specifics and not “game-changing leadership,” then they’ve got him on their turf.

Don’t ignore the GOP convention

It’s still too early to know who will even end up being in the race, much less which candidates will gather signatures to get on the ballot versus those candidates who try to get a spot by finishing in the top two at the Republican convention. Burningham is planning to do both.

For some of the candidates — Huntsman, for example — the convention probably doesn’t matter and probably has more risk than reward. Burningham is different. He could easily follow the model Jonathan Johnson used to finish ahead of Gary Herbert (granted, Johnson had the advantage of running against an incumbent) or former state Rep. Michael Kennedy used to upset Mitt Romney.

In neither case did the momentum last (Herbert and Romney won easily), but it was a boost of credibility. In reality the convention barely matters anymore, but ignoring it could let Burningham surprise some folks and give his bid a boost.

It kind of fits into the overall strategy. The top-tier candidates don’t want to punch down and the lower-tier candidates want to spend their energy punching up.

So the approach for all of them should basically be the same: Run your race and assume there won’t be enough oxygen left for the outsider to get traction and sneak through. If his message and tactics are so good that he becomes a contender, maybe make him your lieutenant governor.

And I suppose if Burningham really shocks folks, maybe you can be his.

Editor’s note • Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.