Robert Gehrke: Trump looms over Utah’s Republican primary, but how would the candidates handle a President Biden?

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Clockwise, from top left: Utah Republican gubernatorial candidates Greg Hughes, Jon Huntsman, Spencer Cox and Thomas Wright.

If you’ve followed Utah’s Republican primary, you can’t help but notice the degree to which the governor’s race has been defined by allegiance to President Donald Trump.

It is a litmus test for the candidates.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes has wrapped himself in the Trump brand. Heck, he’s probably lived off nothing but Trump steaks for the past eight months.

As my colleague Taylor Stevens highlighted over the weekend, Hughes has created a page on his website highlighting Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s criticisms of candidate Trump, which Cox has tried to explain away.

“As a farmer from rural Utah, I was skeptical that a former Democrat from New York would care about Utah and our way of life,” Cox said in a recent debate, adding that he has come around on the president. “No state in America has a better working relationship with President Trump than Utah. As governor, I will ensure that we continue to work together to deliver for our state.”

Robert Gehrke

Thomas Wright touts how he was an early supporter of Trump. And Gov. Jon Huntsman, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Russia, has sent out mailers with a photo of him with the president.

It makes sense. A recent Tribune poll found 82% of Republicans approve of the president’s performance, 54% of them strongly approve.

But other poll numbers out last week raise a question that hasn’t come up in the campaign. A slew of polls in key presidential battleground states paint a bleak picture for Trump.

Democrat Joe Biden is trouncing the president in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Biden leads in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona. Fox News even had Biden up a point in Texas, which hasn’t supported a Democrat since Jimmy Carter.

After 2016, we are a bit skeptical of polls, but with a trend so overwhelming, it’s certainly possible the loyalty to Trump shown by the winner of Tuesday’s primary will be less important than how they deal with President Biden.

The candidates say the right things.

“It’s the job of the governor to forge a relationship and have a good working relationship with whoever is the president of the United States,” Wright said. “While I support the Republican candidate, if the Democrat candidate were to win, I’d do everything I could to have a functioning, working and respectful relationship.”

Huntsman focuses on his work as ambassador for both Trump and President Barack Obama and says that he is “confident I will be able to work with the White House regardless of the outcome of the November election.”

It might be more helpful to look at what the candidates say they’ll do — based on the thorough issues survey compiled by my Tribune colleagues — and their track records to see where friction may arise. I’ve chosen three areas worth considering: health care, climate change and public lands.


Biden helped Obama push the Affordable Care Act through Congress, calls it a “victory,” and says he would build on it during his presidency.

That’s bad news to Hughes, who as speaker blocked Medicaid expansion in Utah, helping to defeat Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan, which Cox tried to get through the Legislature. While Cox says he questions the constitutionality of Obamacare, he has shown a willingness to work within its parameters.

As governor, Huntsman said he was open to the idea of individual mandates, but later backed away from them. In 2013, on “Meet The Press,” he said Republicans should fix problems with Obamacare, but can’t take an “all-or-nothing” approach. Wright has less of a record on the issue, but has been critical of Obamacare generally.

Climate change

Candidate Biden says there is “no greater challenge facing our country and world than climate change,” and would issue executive orders setting pollution limits and putting the U.S. on track to have 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Three of the candidates — Wright, Huntsman and Cox — acknowledge that humans contribute to climate change, while Hughes argues that saying humans cause climate change “would suggest that absent any humans, the climate wouldn’t change.” (It doesn’t suggest that.)

At an Envision Utah forum Hughes said climate concerns are overblown and touted Utah’s “clean coal,” so you can imagine federal action on climate would not sit well with a Hughes administration.

Wright, at the Envision event, couched climate change as a threat to Utah’s ski industry and outdoor recreation. “We need to do everything we can to be responsible stewards of our environment,” he said. “We need to balance that with being smart and not going overboard and hurting our economies.”

In 2018, Cox said there was “clear evidence” that climate change played a role in Utah’s wildfires, but said it is a global problem and the state’s ability to impact the climate is limited. And he has said the solution can’t come at the expense of Utah’s economy.

Huntsman wrote in 2014 that Republicans could not afford to ignore the climate. As governor, he set the state’s first renewable energy target and championed a Western states cap-and-trade plan which, by his presidential bid in 2011, he said had failed.

Public lands

It’s a good bet that in a Biden administration Utah will see the restoration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments that Trump shrunk and a general shift away from a focus on natural resource extraction on public lands. And it likely won’t sit well with Utah Republicans.

Three of the candidates have a clear focus on public lands. Cox is a former county commissioner who speaks of rural Utah’s struggles and criticized the Bears Ears designation by federal officials who live “in their ivory towers on the East Coast and [are] content to destroy our way of life.”

Both Cox and Hughes support a state lawsuit to take control of federal lands. “I’ve had it,” Hughes has said on the issue. “I’ve had enough of their mismanagement, I’ve had enough of them blocking our ability to responsibly manage OUR lands.”

Wright’s running mate, outgoing U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, has made state control of public lands a cornerstone of his time in Congress.

Huntsman, as governor, largely delegated public lands policy to his No. 2, then-Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. As a candidate, Huntsman promises (in fairly vague fashion) to use a collaborative approach to develop “local-based solutions that balance the national interest in our public lands.”

By highlighting these three issues, I’m not suggesting one candidate is inherently better. Sure, there would be more conflict in a Hughes administration, and maybe Utahns want a governor who will stand up to a Democratic president.

But for those GOP primary voters who haven’t cast their ballots yet (you have until Tuesday to get them in the mail): It’s worth considering where the candidates stand in relation to Trump, but maybe give some consideration to how Utah’s next leader might operate if Biden is in the White House.

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