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Robert Gehrke: Utah’s race for governor is defined by the coronavirus and a debate over restarting the economy

Robert Gehrke

You’re forgiven if you haven’t been paying rapt attention to the campaign to elect Utah’s next governor. If you have been, however, you’ve seen a race unlike any in the past.

As I wrote previously, the coronavirus has largely paralyzed campaigns. Normally, a week from convention candidates would be trying to get as much face time with as many delegates in as many different living rooms and restaurant banquet rooms as possible.

These days, no politicians in their right minds are shaking hands and kissing babies.

Instead, they’re relying on conference calls, Facebook town halls, and sometimes even ill-fated Zoom conferences (Aimee Winder Newton and her running mate John Dougall’s first foray was hijacked by hackers posting pornography and racist rants).

It has also reshaped the messaging. You have a great plan for expanding trade? You have some big ideas about public lands? Or you’d like to share your thoughts about how to overhaul Utah’s education system and expand college opportunities?

Great. Put it in an envelope and mail it to June or whenever this blows over. Right now, it’s all-COVID-all-the-time.

And Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who technically suspended most of his campaign events, hasn’t really needed campaign events because his position as head of the state’s Coronavirus Task Force has given him a position where he can act — if not gubernatorial — pretty close to it.

On one hand it’s an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, provided the state’s infection rates stay low.

On the other, he risks becoming a target as hurting and frustrated and frightened Utahns clamor for a return to normalcy and the governor, out of an abundance of caution, has to keep a foot on the brakes or face the even greater risk of letting up too soon and seeing an explosion of the virus.

That’s the opening former House Speaker Greg Hughes seems intent on exploiting. Hughes told me this week, if he was governor, he would ask landlords, utility companies, cellphone companies and the like to voluntarily defer payments — as opposed to Herbert’s order on landlords — and he objected to an attempt to require travelers entering the state to fill out a form reporting potential COVID exposure (a program the state pulled back on because the technology didn’t work as they hoped).

And over the weekend, Hughes sent a mailer that hit Republican voters’ mailboxes with a blaring message: “Let Utah Work Again. Now!”

Now!

This is good politics, at least for the delegates. A Utah Policy poll last week found that about three-fourths of strong Republicans — those Hughes is counting on to get him to the primary — are more worried about the impact of the pandemic on the economy than on public health. A quarter of Republicans don’t believe the coronavirus poses a threat to their communities.

On Tuesday, Hughes was on the radio with Rod Arquette who asked if it’s time to start re-opening businesses, Hughes said, “absolutely.”

“I don’t want the government list of what they deem as essential and nonessential,” Hughes said. “If it puts food on the table … it’s an essential job.”

What this mentality ignores is the reason we have relatively few cases and a low mortality rate is that the preventative steps we’ve taken, severe and painful as they may be, have worked.

The rationale is basically, “I don’t know why I bother taking this birth control, I haven’t had any unplanned pregnancies.”

We ALL want the economy running again, but those decisions should be driven by data and medical professionals, not balance sheets or political polls.

The rest of the Republican field has largely avoided criticizing the preventative measures taken and instead focus on what the state can do to accelerate an economic recovery, using a lot of the same levers.

Jon Huntsman — who surprised me by gathering enough signatures to qualify for the ballot this week despite the coronavirus shut down — has been talking about using the state rainy day funds to infuse “fresh capital” into the economy and others — Hughes, Jeff Burningham and Aimee WInder Newton, see a role for the state to assist businesses as well.

Thomas Wright, in a delegate conference call Tuesday, said the economic crisis is an opportunity to shrink government and get back to conservative principles.

Any recovery will play out, it certainly appears, after the state Republicans gather in a virtual convention a week from Saturday. There the field will likely be narrowed to the three candidates who earned a spot on the ballot by gathering signatures — Cox, Wright and Huntsman — and probably Hughes, who should be able to ride his Trump bona fides to a finish in the top two and a chance to compete in the primary.

After that, the candidates have to reassess how they campaign and we in the media have to be creative about how we cover this race (like my colleagues did this week with a summary of where the candidates stand on the issues). The return to normal we want likely won’t come before the June primary, and it shouldn’t simply be decided by who has the most money to saturate the airwaves.

Voters in this primary — which likely will decide who is Utah’s next governor — deserve better than that. We don’t know what the next crisis might be and, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the decisions made by the person who holds the office are far too important to be left to chance.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.

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