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Robert Gehrke: Gov. Herbert tried to push one of Spencer Cox’s opponents out. It was a sloppy move.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thomas Wright answers a question during the gubernatorial debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

I’ve never been good at physics, but I’ve been a student of politics for a long time and there are some common principles — things like angles, leverage, mass, force and pressure.

In that sense, Republican gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright got a bit of a physics lesson from Gov. Gary Herbert recently.

The effort, first reported by Utah Policy, started last month, right after the Utah Republican convention, when Herbert invited Wright to meet with him and discuss his campaign’s future.

Four sources who were told about the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships with these politicians, say that Herbert encouraged Wright to drop out, endorse Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and in two years run against Sen. Mike Lee, who would then be up for reelection.

Robert Gehrke

If Wright did that, Herbert promised to round up political and financial support. Wright left the meeting noncommittal, but the rumor that he would be dropping out began bouncing around political circles within days.

Then after a poll showed Wright trailing the rest of the field last week, Herbert invited Wright for another round of Hires milkshakes and again made a pitch to get out of the race and support Cox — although this time Herbert walked back his previous commitment to rally support.

I reached out to Wright. He would not address what happened in the meetings, but says there’s no way he’s dropping out.

“I have no intention of getting out of this race. I never have. I’m in it to win it,” Wright said. “I know what kind of race I’m running. It’s me against three professional politicians, but I believe my message will win in the end.”

The governor’s chief of staff, Justin Harding, sent my colleague Taylor Stevens a lengthy statement about how the governor and Wright are long-time friends but it can be distilled down to: "The topics they might discuss as part of their social and private interactions are just that, private.”

You’ll note neither side is denying the meetings took place.

There are a few takeaways to be had here.

While we don’t know exactly what kind of support Herbert may have offered to Wright as an incentive to get out of the race, firm commitments of funding or an endorsement could violate Utah law. Utah Code 20A-9-204 makes it a class B misdemeanor for anyone to “promise to pay or reward another in any manner or form for the purpose of inducing that person to be, or to refrain from or cease being a candidate.”

We’ve seen this before. A candidate for treasurer in 2008 offered a competitor a job if the competitor would drop out. The candidate pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a small fine and do community service.

I doubt we’ll see Herbert in an orange vest picking up trash on the side of the road, but it shows a real sloppiness on his part and a willingness, again, to use his clout for political purposes — remember when “Available Jones” offered lobbyists private speed-dating-style meetings with clients who donated to his campaign?

And it appears that it’s kind of what Team Herbert does. Jonathan Johnson, who lost to Herbert four years ago in a primary, told me Wednesday of a meeting a year before the 2016 convention where Zions Bank President Scott Anderson, then Herbert’s finance chairman, and pollster Dan Jones tried to convince him he couldn’t win and urged him to get out of the race and run against Lee.

It’s a bad look, compounded some by the cloud cast by questionable no-bid COVID contracts coming out of his office.

Second, how does Lee feel about this whole thing? It was an open secret four years ago that some business leaders, including Anderson, were trying to recruit someone to challenge Lee. But these kind of fissures among Utah Republican leaders typically aren’t dragged out into the daylight like this. It’s a slap in Lee’s face.

Moreover, it’s a political miscalculation. With a lame-duck governor, a toss-up race to replace him and a junior senator in Mitt Romney whose support in the Republican Party is shaky, Lee, right now, is the most powerful — even if not well-liked — member of the party.

Finally, it reiterates what we all know on some level: This will be a really, really tight primary. It’s unlikely that Herbert would have risked the story coming out — which of course it would — if the Cox team didn’t sense this is going to be a very close primary and they would benefit from Wright not being in the mix.

It’s politics as usual, applying the principles of physics in hopes of lifting one candidate above the rest. And with a month to go in a race this close, it’s likely not the last lesson Utah voters will get.

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

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