Robert Gehrke: How to beat Greg Hughes in Utah’s race for governor

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Surrounded by friends, family and supporters, former Speaker of the House Greg Hughes announces he's running for governor of Utah at Dee's Automotive in Murray on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Utahns who love Donald Trump have got to be happy. Not only will Trump be on the ballot for president, they can vote for a Trump clone in former House Speaker Greg Hughes for governor.

“Clone” is too strong, but Hughes is Trump’s No. 1 superfan in Utah. If you don’t believe me, ask to see his tattoo. (I really don’t know if he has a Trump tattoo. I’m just assuming.)

Hughes enters the race for governor in a bit of a hole. In the latest Utah Policy poll of Republican voters, Hughes came in at just 5%, behind Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and tied with businessman Jeff Burningham, 36 percentage points behind the leader, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. So he’s toast, right?

Robert Gehrke

Not so fast. More than any other candidate, Hughes has a wide-open lane he is hoping to run through like Jerome Bettis used to for Hughes’ beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s the Trump lane, and he can use it by campaigning just like the president — namely by throwing red meat, going on the attack and going all-in on rallying the Trump base, because that is his base, too, and turning them out to vote is what could take him from 5% to a contender.

But he can be beaten, too, so, just as I’ve done with all of the other candidates — Cox, Burningham, Winder Newton, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former GOP chair Thomas Wright (phew!) — here is how to beat Hughes.

Avoid the Trump trap

Hughes’ Trumpism may be a liability in a general election, considering the president’s approval rating has been consistently hovering at or below 50%. But this is a race for the Republican primary, so only Republican voters matter.

A Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll conducted last year found that about 74% of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance. A more recent Utah Policy poll had almost identical results. Those are the people who will choose Utah’s next governor and that’s why Hughes wants to get so close to Trump they could share a pair of pants. (You’re welcome for that haunting image.)

Any candidate who regularly goes after Trump is playing the wrong side of the odds. This is a particular liability for Cox, who has been the most critical of the president.

So fight the urge. More than that, praise the president when you can do it (and still sleep at night). The economy is booming. He cut taxes. He shrunk the monuments. He reformed the justice system. He went almost all week without tweeting anything racist or misogynistic. Whatever it takes.

If you do feel the need to criticize Trump, take a page from Mitt Romney’s playbook — distance yourself from the president’s tweets and tone or tactfully criticize policies you know don’t play well among Utah voters, like family separations at the border or restrictions on refugee resettlement.

You will not out-Trump Hughes, but you need to fight for that 74% of pro-Trump Republicans, and the only way to do that is to crowd Hughes’ open lane a little — even if it is distasteful.

All about that base

People might be surprised at some of the issues Hughes is running on. Take one: He boasts about his opposition to Obamacare and Medicaid expansion.

Weird, tactic, right? Especially if you consider that a majority of Utahns voted to expand Medicaid to cover tens of thousands of low-income residents, or consider that since evil Obamacare was enacted Utah’s rate of uninsured has fallen by nearly half, or that, according to some studies, the delay in expanding Medicaid cost hundreds of Utahns their lives.

But, again, the majority of Utahns don’t matter, strategically speaking, nor does the segment of Republicans who supported Medicaid expansion. If you make it a priority to clash with Hughes on those issues, you elevate the very issues he’s relying on to connect with the right-wing voters he is relying on.

So focus on your own message to try to connect with those same voters — small government, economic growth, rural opportunities, low taxes, education funding and accountability. Again, it’s about squeezing Hughes’ open lane whenever possible.

Beyond that, Hughes spent 16 years in the House. In that span there are votes that come off as a lot more moderate. He supported abolishing the death penalty, incentivizing paid parental leave, banning cellphone use while driving, preserving the Count My Vote compromise, and forcing nonprofits to disclose political spending. He opposed lowering Utah’s DUI limit and, most problematic, he has voted to raise taxes — including the property tax, hotel tax and gas tax.

The point isn’t that he was wrong on those issues. I happen to agree with all of those votes, which is why I’d be a lousy Republican candidate for governor. It doesn’t resonate with the Republican voters and pulls him into the field of moderates, making it harder for him to stand out as a clear choice for conservatives.

Hire a good opposition researcher

Almost as long as Hughes has been in politics, there has been this cloud of ethical impropriety swirling around him.

He was the only legislator in years to be the subject of a formal ethics inquiry (he beat it). He had to step down from the inland port board because he had a conflict of interest. His relationship with developer Terry Diehl while Hughes chaired the UTA board has been questioned (Diehl beat criminal charges and Hughes was never charged).

Again, nothing has ever really stuck, but there remains a perception that he’s shady — and in politics, perception is reality.

It’s worth a campaign’s time and money to see what else might be out there to dirty him up even more. But be careful, because Utahns don’t like “negative” campaigning and the backfire risk is high.

You know he’ll respond by blaming the liberal media — fake news — and his political enemies. It’s Trumpian to its core and, again, rallies his base. So be prepared for that move, as well.

Knock him off message

If all that fails, there’s a surefire way to get under his skin. Tell him that the Steelers are a garbage team and an overrated franchise and wait for him to erupt.