Robert Gehrke: What does 2020 hold for Trump, McAdams and Utah’s next governor? Join me as I peer into the mists.

Robert Gehrke

Last year at this time I predicted we would be preparing for the inauguration of Mayor Jim Dabakis.

In my defense, I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t have foreseen Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski opting not to run again, Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla getting in, and everything else that unfolded.

It goes to show how quickly things we think we know can change. At least it keeps things interesting.

When I made my 2019 predictions, for example, who would’ve guessed that Jon Huntsman would be back from Russia and wanting to take another crack at being governor. But here we are.

Others I was flat-out wrong about. I thought former House Speaker Greg Hughes would be in the governors race by now and he and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox would be leading the field (he isn’t, yet). I predicted an early departure by Rep. Rob Bishop (he’s still in office), and a resolution on the Bears Ears National Monument lawsuit (there isn’t).

So I had an off year. But here’s hoping my 2020 predictions are a little more on-target — most of them, at least.

Four more years (sigh)

If I’ve got to be wrong, this is one I hope I’m wrong about.

I wrote a few months ago that Democrats should be very concerned about how tight the polls are in the battleground states and that Donald Trump could be the first president in history to be impeached and reelected.

In this Dec. 18, 2019, photo, President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich. Using stark “Us versus Them” language, Trump and his campaign are trying to frame impeachment not as judgment on his conduct but as a culture war referendum on him and his supporters, aiming to motivate his base heading into an election year (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Not much has changed. Joe Biden still does better head-to-head against Trump in most of the battleground states, but one key state, in particular — Wisconsin — remains basically tied.

Nationally, 18% of voters are undecided. But when NBC News political reporter Mark Murray broke down who those voters are, they are predominantly independent-to-Republican-leaning white men who give Trump a 55% approval rating. Were Trump not Trump with all the chaos that comes with him, a good portion likely would already be solidly behind him. Barring a major tremor in the economy it’s reasonable to believe they’ll hold their noses and vote for him again.

Trump will lose the popular vote by a larger margin than he did last time. But right now, I suspect he’ll hold on to enough states to win the Electoral College and transform the country, starting with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The one wild card will be turnout. Anger is a big motivator and if voters turn out in huge numbers, like they did in 2018, it could flip the outcome.

New blood vs. the old guard

Right now, the governor’s race looks like it’s a showdown between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman.

It’s actually quite a bit more complicated with a crowded field and Bishop still a potential spoiler (although I doubt it) and Hughes not yet in the race.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mac Munns, left, owner of the historic eatery The Pie Dump in Garland, Utah in Box Elder County speaks with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday, July 30, 2019, who is on a campaign tour with plans to visit all 248 cities and towns in the state during his gubernatorial campaign.

It comes down, as it always does, to who can win a Republican primary and the latest Utah Policy poll showed Cox with a 12-point cushion on Huntsman among Republicans. The bigger problem Huntsman faces is that, because people know him, he has to change their minds, rather than just make a first impression.

Huntsman could, as I wrote previously, break from the Republican Party and run as an independent. If he does that, I think he would win fairly easily. If he stays in the GOP and tries to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the field, I don’t see him beating Cox. In fact, the real question then becomes whether they split the moderate Republican vote (along with Aimee Winder Newton) and give someone like Hughes a shot at riding a Trump wave to the nomination.

That’s unlikely and I think Cox emerges as the nominee and coasts to an easy win in the general. Former Rep. Sophia DiCaro will be his lieutenant governor.

McAdams holds on … barely

Utah’s 4th District is always tight. Of the four elections since the district was created, it has twice been decided by fewer than 800 votes. Don’t expect that to change in 2020.

Right now, the Republican field includes state Rep. Kim Coleman, former party official Kathleen Anderson and former NFL player Burgess Owens. I suspect there will be at least one more late addition.

Utah Rep. Ben McAdams arrives for a news conference before announcing he will vote to impeach President Donald Trump Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Murray, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Cook Political Report, which rates political races, calls the 4th District a toss-up. Whoever the nominee ends up being — right now, I’d bet on Coleman — will get significant help from the national GOP, especially since Republicans have fewer seats to protect than Democrats.

McAdams, however, has raised a lot of money — $1.3 million in the bank so far — and has been quietly doing the kind of work he needs to do to solidify support among independents.

He’ll be hammered on the impeachment vote and accused of being a Nancy Pelosi loyalist, but those attacks really only work on people already inclined to oppose him. In the end, I think he pulls it out, but don’t be surprised if its another squeaker.

Other fearless predictions

• We already witnessed the Legislature trying to play games with two initiatives that voters approved in 2018 — legalizing medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. So there’s no reason to think they won’t monkey with the third initiative, creating an independent redistricting commission. I had assumed the war would be waged in the courts, but a series of recent rulings make that less likely. So look for the Legislature to try to gut the redistricting commission on its own. Keep in mind the commission already is merely advisory. Look for lawmakers to further weaken the panel and remove the small amount of leverage the commission now has.

• Opponents to the tax reform package passed earlier this month are gathering signatures to repeal the law via the 2020 ballot. These sorts of efforts are really hard to do without a ton of organization and a lot of money. Right now, they have neither, meaning it’s likely that the tax referendum won’t make the ballot.

• There will be some further efforts to tinker with taxes, but they won’t come to much. Lawmakers won’t have the appetite to amend the Constitution to remove a provision earmarking income tax money to education — and they don’t really need to, since they’ve cut education funding. An attempt to move more of the education budget to property taxes ends up being too complicated and politically untenable.

• The makeup of the Legislature won’t change much. After picking off a few seats in 2018, Democrats could gain one more House seat, maybe two if they’re lucky. Sen. Allen Christensen is probably the most vulnerable Senate Republican (if he runs again), but he’s still pretty safe.

• Last year, after I predicted the Utah Jazz would miss the playoffs, one of our Jazz writers, Andy Larsen, suggested I stick to politics. But I’ve never been one to play it safe, so here goes: The Jazz will edge out Houston for the third spot in the Western Conference, beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, but lose to the L.A. Clippers in the conference semifinal. And, after another strong season, the University of Utah opens 2021 playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman.