Robert Gehrke: Here’s how Jon Huntsman can shake up Utah politics

Robert Gehrke

Jon Huntsman, the former governor-turned ambassador-turned presidential candidate-turned ambassador, hasn’t been back from Moscow long, but already he has been spotted at Equality Utah’s Allies Dinner and last week his return was celebrated at a “welcome home” gathering hosted by Zions Bank President Scott Anderson.

Within the next few weeks, Huntsman is expected to decide whether he’ll take another crack at running for governor of Utah.

To quote the Magic 8-Ball: “All signs point to yes.”

Obviously, he’s not just a contender, but perhaps the guy to beat — although one recent poll showed him running neck-and-neck with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. And there is a way to beat him. (I’ll cover that in another column, as I have done with the other candidates who got into the race.)

For much of his political career, though, Huntsman has not been averse to shaking up, or at least gently prodding, Utah’s political landscape — whether it’s overhauling the liquor laws, reforming the tax system or supporting LGBTQ rights.

This time, however, because of his profile and pedigree, he actually has an opportunity to really shock the system and do something that would be revolutionary: become the first independent governor of Utah.

You’re probably asking: What is Gehrke smoking and where can I get some?

The idea may not be quite as crazy as you think.

Huntsman has almost universal name recognition. Fundraising won’t be a problem for him. He doesn’t really need the Utah Republican Party and, really, never had any use or affinity for the party and has largely operated outside its structure.

And when he runs, er, I mean if he runs, the hardest election he will encounter wouldn’t be the November general election. It would be the Republican primary election in June.

That field is already crowded with the aforementioned Spencer Cox, businessman Jeff Burningham and, most recently, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton having declared, while former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright are almost sure to enter the race, and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop is looking at a potential run.

That’s a Battle Royale-style setup, in which candidates will be throwing elbows and the lane for moderate Republican voters will be especially cramped, with Huntsman, Cox and Newton.

A poll by the Salt Lake Chamber released Wednesday shows the problem Huntsman is facing. He trails Cox 34% to 30% among Republican voters. More daunting, 18% of Republicans say he’s the candidate they are least likely to vote for — meaning the cement is already hardened for nearly one Republican voter in five.

That’s the race that could torpedo Huntsman’s triumphant return before it ever takes off.

And he doesn’t have to risk it. Thanks to the Count My Vote signature gathering path to the ballot, Huntsman can simply gather signatures — which he will almost certainly do anyway — and get a spot on the November ballot, not as a Republican or Democrat, but just as Jon Huntsman, which right now is probably a much better brand in Utah, anyway.

Once there, he can play elder statesman, avoiding the burden of being from the Party of Trump — to the extent someone who served in his administration can.

The electoral math is manageable. In Utah there are about 686,000 registered Republicans, the largest such bloc. But there are about 512,000 unaffiliated voters and 186,000 Democrats.

Huntsman has always polled better among independents and moderates, as opposed to die-hard Republicans, anyway. Peel off a sizable number of moderate Republicans, toss them in with Democrats who see him as a better option than yet another Republican governor, add in those middle-of-the-road unaffiliateds, and there’s your coalition for victory.

There’s a good chance that none of this would actually change how he would govern, although the optics of a “moderate in the middle,” not beholden to the Republican establishment would be appealing to a lot of constituents.

There’s one more thing Huntsman could get out of it. Insiders around the state seem to think Huntsman’s long-term ambition is running for governor to possibly position himself for one more shot at running for president.

We live in a country that is bitterly divided. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center said 83% of Republicans view Democrats unfavorably and vice versa for 79% of Democrats toward Republicans. Large segments view the other as closed-minded, immoral and unpatriotic.

I think that understates it. I think the real die-hard partisans would rather cut each others’ throats than breathe the same air. And the toxic atmosphere likely won’t change regardless of who wins in 2020, especially if it’s Trump.

So how appealing would it be to have an independent governor emerge in 2024 who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents, who was a leader of the “No Labels’ movement, who runs down the middle, eschews both extremes and runs on the platform of uniting the country?

Do I believe any of this will happen? Probably not.

When I asked Lisa Roskelley, a Huntsman associate and his former spokeswoman, about the idea she said: “He has always been a Republican.”

But that doesn’t mean he always has to be. And if the former governor does, as he has intimated, have one more run in him, he could use that opportunity to shake up the system and transform the political landscape in Utah.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.