Robert Gehrke: Three key things to keep in mind in Utah’s Republican primary for governor

Robert Gehrke

Between the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice, I haven’t had time to write as much as I’d like about the race to be Utah’s next governor.

So now, with less than two weeks until the Republican primary and Utahns already voting by mail, I figured I’d share a couple observations about the state of the race.

Switching sides

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was among those Utahns who had changed my party affiliation so I could vote in the Republican primary, but despite talking to a bunch of people who had done the same, I doubted those crossovers would amount to more than a blip.

“Most of the research of crossover voting has suggested that it rarely — if ever — matters,” said Matthew Burbank, University of Utah political science professor.

My opinion changed somewhat Monday when new voter registration numbers showed that nearly 28,000 people had registered as Republicans in the past two weeks. In the past month, the number is nearing 41,000.

With Democrats having until the end of the week to change their affiliation and independent voters given until Election Day, we don’t know how much higher that number will go, but it’s a safe bet it will clear 50,000 and possibly 60,000.

Compare that 41,000 figure to the same timeframe in 2016, when the new Republican registrations was 10,500 or 2012 when the number was less than 8,000.

I don’t suggest that 60,000 crossover votes will be cast in the primary, but the number will be sizable and logically, if they bothered to change their affiliation, it’s a good bet they’ll bother to vote. And it could matter.

In the last two statewide primaries — in 2012 and 2016 — an average of about 256,000 people voted. If, say, 30,000 independents and Democrats actually do cross over, they would be more than 10% of the electorate. Even if turnout reaches 400,000, those crossovers would account for 7.5%.

Polls show a reasonably close race between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has been most aggressive when it comes to encouraging people to jump to the GOP. Those polls also show Huntsman would benefit the most — holding an edge of between 12% and 17% over Cox among the crossover voters.

I thought it was a risky strategy with little upside for the Huntsman campaign, which has made plenty of mistakes. But if he nets a few thousand more votes than Cox from those crossover voters, it could matter in a tight race.

The pivotal issue

The pandemic has shaped this race from the start — nearly keeping Huntsman off the ballot, to shutting down traditional campaigning, to reshaping debates, to actually infecting Huntsman.

Add to that the politics of shutdowns, the economic disaster and vision for recovery, questionable state contracts, and it’s clear the virus has infected every aspect of the campaign.

The candidates have accused each other of “politicizing” the pandemic, which misses the point: The candidates' approach to the virus and the economic recovery are critical issues that should be at the heart of the campaign.

So far it’s clear that it’s Cox who has benefited from the pandemic. As head of the state’s coronavirus task force, Cox has been in a high-profile leadership role and received near-constant media attention.

He has also benefited from a generally positive state response that, up until the past few weeks, saw low infection rates and very low mortality rates.

But he had escaped blame for things that went wrong. For example:

• The state’s early push to make the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine available over the counter without a prescription and the aborted contract to buy tens of thousands of doses of the useless drug.

• The abandoned effort to require travelers to fill out a COVID survey when entering the state.

• The $6 million year-long contract for a tracking app that still doesn’t work two months after it was promised.

• The entire TestUtah mess, including questions about the low rate of positive test results, the refusal to participate in tests to validate the results and problems at the lab that processes the TestUtah samples. The official in charge of state testing voiced concerns and was removed from her job and the TestUtah contract was extended.

That may have changed Tuesday night, when all three opponents hammered him on those very issues.

“The response was not perfect,” Cox acknowledged. “Criticism is going to come. It’s part of leadership.”

“Leadership means taking responsibility and being accountable,” Huntsman shot back. “We have no answers for how millions of dollars was spent on no-bid contracts."

Wright and Hughes joined in, with Wright saying people who sacrificed deserve credit. “The things the coronavirus task force is over are a disaster.”

Cox faces considerable risk here. If he can’t control the message and COVID-19 continues to spread, the luster may come off of the state’s response and his campaign.

What coattails?

With President Donald Trump’s sky-high approval among Republicans coming into the race, I bought into the conventional wisdom that cozying up to the president would pay big dividends.

The candidates, apparently, thought the same, with all four of them pledging their support for the president to varying degrees.

None was more pro-Trump than Hughes, but the recent polling has showed Hughes unable to build enough support to be more than a long-shot. Thomas Wright, likewise, has been a full-throated supporter of Trump, and is languishing in fourth.

Cox’s past criticism of the president has been featured on billboards intended to paint Cox as an anti-Trumper, but he had a resounding win among the conservative activists at the state GOP convention and is still leading in the polls going into the primary.

Utahns’ relationship with Trump has always been complicated and in the Republican Party it looks like support for the president may be broad, but not very deep.

That could matter in the general election in November if the Republican president isn’t able to provide a boost to GOP candidates against tough Democratic opponents — Rep. Ben McAdams, for example.

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