Robert Gehrke: Here’s how to beat Thomas Wright in the race for Utah’s next governor

Robert Gehrke

Soon, it seems, the question will become: “Who isn’t running for governor?”

Thomas Wright became the latest Republican to jump into the race and if you don’t know Wright, you’re probably not alone.

He’s a former Utah Republican Party chairman and current Republican national committeeman. He runs a successful real estate brokerage, but outside of those circles, isn’t widely known. The most recent poll by Utah Policy had him registering at 1% support among Republicans.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Thomas Wright says a few words during a news conference with Second Lady Karen Pence at the Utah Sate Capitol, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

Wright has some things going for him, most notably a good network within the GOP, and add in his connections in business and politics, he should be able to raise quite a bit of money.

Like every candidate, however, he is beatable and, as I have done previously with the other Republican contenders — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, businessman Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman — here’s a little blueprint on how to do it.

Make it expensive

The interesting thing about this field is that, with the likely exception of Winder Newton, none of them have any problems with financing. It’s largely a group of millionaires, and Wright adds to the tally.

Consider that Burningham, a political newcomer who isn’t well known, has raised more than $1.5 million (though more than half is from his own pocket). Cox has raised more than $900,000, and former House Speaker Greg Hughes has about half a million raised before he officially announces.

Wright, as I mentioned, won’t have much of a problem raising money, on top of what he can contribute himself. But he doesn’t have an established base or group of followers, so his first challenge is introducing himself to voters, and that’s not easy or cheap.

The other candidates can make that difficult just by campaigning aggressively, occupying as much of voters’ bandwidth as possible. This is normally not a busy time of year for campaigns, but to the extent they can be active and aggressive, it makes it harder for candidates like Wright to get a toehold in the race.

Build him up

This sounds counterintuitive, but with Wright barely registering in the polls right now, to the extent the top-tier candidates — Cox and Huntsman — acknowledge him, there’s no advantage to punch down, and even a potential benefit to being positive.

Praising a candidate like Wright could actually make it more challenging for others in that second tier to build a solid base of support and become a real threat. If voters aren’t supporting you, you’d rather have them supporting Wright than someone who is a more immediate threat.

That strategy may help down the road, too. As we saw in the similarly crowded Salt Lake City mayoral primary last year, voters want to feel like their votes matter. So when Election Day approached, we saw many Salt Lake voters jettison their favorite candidate — think of the Stan Penfolds and David Garbetts — in favor of a more viable option. Being these voters’ second choice with a shot at winning helped Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall surge at the end and make it through the primary.

It stands to reason that if we have five or six candidates in the Republican primary next year, we’d see similar movement from the long-shots to the front-runners. And in a race that could be won with as little as 25% of the vote, even a bump of a single percentage point could be the difference between winning and losing.

The same applies to the rest of the field, as well. If you can’t be the first choice, make darn sure you’re the second.

Block him off

We’ve seen it in the Democratic presidential primary: With a flock of combatants, it’s hard for any of them to rise above the din. It’s why things proved so challenging for people like Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke. They were saying largely the same things as the folks leading the field but, because the front-runners are front-runners, they are the ones who get heard and talked about.

That will be the challenge for Wright and others polling in the single digits, to come up with a message that is clear and compelling enough to distinguish one voice from the others.

And it should be the mission of everyone else in the field to keep that from happening by playing messaging whack-a-mole. If he’s gaining traction talking about education, for example, you talk about education.

If you’re blocking Wright’s lane, he won’t have any running room and if he can’t build up a head of steam, he won’t break away from the field and he certainly won’t be leaving you in the dust.

Focus on experience

Wright has two things in common with Burningham: They have the same hairstyle and they are the only two candidates in the race who haven’t held political office.

Wright is certainly more politically connected than Burningham, as a former state party chairman, but he still doesn’t have much of a record to run on (or against).

It can be done. Huntsman, Mike Leavitt and Scott Matheson all won their bids for governor without holding prior political office. But there is a steep learning curve and that inexperience can be exploited early, especially by such a seasoned field.

This week, former House Speaker Greg Hughes — who we have known for nearly a year would be in the field — will announce his candidacy, which means you can look forward to my five-part series about how to beat him. (Just kidding, Greg.)

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