Robert Gehrke: Jon Huntsman wants to be governor again. Here’s how his opponents can stop him.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Former two-term Gov. Jon Huntsman, 59, announced his bid for governor, Nov. 14, 2019. Huntsman speaks to students at the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Thursday.

A lot of smart political people I talk to believe Jon Huntsman, who announced another bid for governor last week, is a shoo-in to reclaim his old job. I happen to disagree. In fact, I think he’s got a very hard road ahead, one his opponents can make a lot harder.

We need to start here: The voters who will choose the next governor are the Republicans who turn out for the primary. Huntsman is, of course, universally known in those circles, but not exactly beloved.

A recent poll by the Salt Lake Chamber found Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox leading Huntsman 34% to 30% among Republicans. The real problem, though, was that 18% of Republicans said they won’t vote for Huntsman, a number three times higher than anyone else in the field.

When you’re that widely known and have that level of opposition, the challenge becomes changing people’s minds, which is harder than making a first impression.

The job for the rest of the field will be to subtly reinforce the preconceived negatives Republican voters have toward Huntsman — and we’ve already seen others, particularly Cox, moving in that direction.

This is but one of the ways Huntsman’s Republican opponents can thwart him. I have outlined more strategies below. Each time a candidate jumps in the race, I’ve outlined ways to beat them. I’ve written similar columns on Cox, Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton and businessman Jeff Burningham.

The ambitious ambassador

It was just over 10 years ago that Huntsman resigned his governorship to accept a post as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. He came home and took a shot at running for president. Then he went on to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia.

It’s a great record of service. But I can’t count how many people have asked me why the heck Huntsman would come back to a job he left? Is he angling to be secretary of state or take another run at the White House?

He has said that he answered the call to serve when the president asked, but being governor was the best job he has held and he still has a lot to offer to the state of Utah. He said “I’m not going anywhere,” strongly implying that he would serve out his term if he wins.

Fine answers, but skepticism remains — suspicion, even — that Huntsman still has grander aspirations and Utahns don’t want to be a stepping stone or consolation prize.

“Huntsman uses Utah like a backup, stand-by girlfriend. He only calls when the girl he really wants isn’t available,” state Sen. Todd Weiler (a Cox supporter) tweeted. It was part of a brutal thread that jabbed hard at Huntsman’s greatest vulnerability.

Contrasting the candidates

Another challenge for Huntsman will be to overcome the easy contrasts that can be drawn between himself and the other candidates.

Do you want the same guy who first held the office 15 years ago, or is it time for new ideas and new blood?

Do you want the guy who has spent most of the past 10 years in Moscow or Mantua? Beijing or Beaver? Someone who has been closer to Ukraine than Utah?

Do we want someone who is getting back up to speed on the issues, or someone who has been working in the trenches?

Cox is already playing that card. Minutes after Huntsman announced last week that he was going to run, Cox released endorsements from 125 mayors, a show of local, grassroots support.

And the hardest contrast for Huntsman to overcome is his family name (though it is also an asset). Do voters want the guy with the silver spoon, or a scrapper from Pittsburgh in former House Speaker Greg Hughes, a likely candidate? A farm boy from Fairview in Cox? The first woman to make it to the ballot in Aimee Winder Newton? Or a self-made businessman in Jeff Burningham?

These are easy — even if not entirely fair — narratives that will make changing voters’ minds that much more difficult. And we’ll likely see them a lot over the next few months.

Run rural and Republican

When Huntsman left office, his approval rating was hovering around 80%. But he has always struggled among the most committed Republican voters. A poll in 2011, for example, found that 69% of Democrats viewed him favorably compared with just 44% of Republicans.

In polls during the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney obliterated Huntsman in Utah.

A shrewd opponent will be able to highlight those areas where Huntsman is at odds with Utah Republican orthodoxy, and a candidate like Hughes could even drive a wedge between Huntsman and the Trump wing of the party.

Huntsman has also struggled in rural Utah. It’s why he picked Gary Herbert to be his lieutenant governor and presumably why he chose to launch his campaign in Cedar City instead of Salt Lake City.

It’s just not a natural fit for him and Cox in particular can force Huntsman to work for support outside the Wasatch Front.

One last thing ...

I should probably address the elephant that has been in the room since Huntsman’s name was floated as a candidate for governor. As you’re no doubt aware, the ambassador’s brother, Paul Huntsman, owns The Tribune, which has led some to question if it will color how we cover the race.

Cox insinuated as much when he tweeted: “We might have challenges (my family doesn’t have a billion dollars/own the Salt Lake Tribune/have our names on buildings) … but we have you!”

Paul Huntsman has not dictated or exercised influence over our coverage, even a while back when I wrote that Jon Huntsman should resign as ambassador to Russia to protest Trump’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin. I was frankly testing limits a little and I got zero pushback (aside from the ambassador’s op-ed in response).

I should also note that, as The Tribune shifts to a nonprofit status, an independent board will oversee the operations of the paper, rather than Paul Huntsman individually. It should provide another layer of protection.

I’m sure our motives will still be questioned. That’s fine. We are aware of the issue and should be receptive to criticism. But I’m also confident that our team of reporters are committed to covering this race the way we would any other, thoroughly and without favoritism, because we owe that to our readers.

Robert Gehrke