Robert Gehrke: In Utah’s race for governor, it is a tale of two Republican campaigns

Robert Gehrke

The winner of Utah’s Republican nomination for governor is still up in the air.

Spencer Cox has the advantage of a little more than 11,000 votes, but with more than 112,000 still to be counted — an unknown number of them cast in the Democratic primaries — it is possible that Jon Huntsman could stage a surprising comeback.

Wherever they end up, their campaigns were a contrast in styles.

Spencer Cox’s detractors say he started running for governor the second he became Gov. Gary Herbert’s somewhat improbable No. 2 — and there may be some truth to that.

But when he launched his campaign in earnest in May (over a year ago), his team did something very smart. Getting in months before his opponents meant he had time on his side — an asset that became orders of magnitude more valuable once COVID-19 put a halt to traditional campaigning this March.

Cox’s team used that time to great advantage, visiting every city in Utah. And these weren’t just campaign stops. He rallied people to do service projects, infusing the race with a sort of higher calling that very few campaigns are able to channel.

It’s a media stunt if you’re sitting in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, but not if you’re one of those people whom he visited and met with, people who often feel like they live in fly-over, or at least drive-past, country.

Those meetings turn into relationships that turn into a huge grassroots network, one of the most valuable assets in politics and one that you can’t buy; you’ve got to earn it.

And it’s easy to see where it paid dividends when Cox was able to gather enough signatures to qualify for a primary using mainly volunteer signature gatherers.

The network served him again, to some extent, when he surprised many — including me — by dominating the Republican state convention.

The campaign flexed the grassroots muscle effectively on social media, apart from endorsement spam, to demonstrate a “green wave” of support.

And it showed up again Tuesday night, when the campaign tapped that network to turn out the votes that could very well make the lieutenant governor the Republican nominee and likely — assuming he can beat Democrat Chris Peterson — Utah’s next governor.

It was, in all honesty, one of the best campaigns I’ve seen, despite some difficult circumstances.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign, by contrast, seemed to step on every rake imaginable. Some of the adversity was avoidable, some was not — from a disorganized signature-gathering effort, hampered severely by the coronavirus outbreak; to a message that took months to formulate; to a poor showing at convention; to the candidate himself and a large portion of his campaign staff actually contracting COVID-19 during the stretch run.

It was remarkable, frankly, that they kept things as close as they did in a Republican race that, from the start, I didn’t think Huntsman could win.

Rank-and-file Republicans, who already viewed the former governor with suspicion for his moderate politics, didn’t trust him after he left office in 2009 — to work for a Democratic president, of all things. Coming back to run struck many I talked to as opportunistic.

If he wanted to revolutionize Utah politics, I wrote, he should run — and win — as an independent. I made this argument in a column last October. A couple months after that I ran into Huntsman at the Capitol.

“So this is the guy who thinks we can’t win,” he said, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

“I didn’t say you can’t win,” I replied. “I said you can’t win as a Republican.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said and went off to shake some hands.

So now we wait and see.

Tax reform fallout

One of the biggest shockers, from my perspective, was the defeat of state Sen. Lyle Hillyard.

Not so much that he lost. He’s faced tough challenges before and a wired-in northern Utah politico type told me he might lose. What surprised me was how bad he got spanked.

Part of that, surely, was that people were ready for a change. Hillyard was first elected to the House in 1980 — more than a decade before Utah’s youngest legislator, Rep. Candice Pierucci, was born. After 40 years in office, 36 of them in the Senate, you could see why a “change” message might resonate.

But Hillyard also suffered from his prominent role as the leader of the Legislature’s tax reform push last year, the bill that drew fire from seemingly all sides and ended up being repealed in the face of a public referendum to overturn it.

I like Hillyard personally. He obviously brought a ton of institutional knowledge, and his son Matt was a gift to the Legislature.

However, Hillyard’s sound defeat should probably frighten lawmakers in swing districts who supported the tax bill. People are angry, and no matter how entrenched an incumbent you are, you may well feel that backlash.

His defeat also raises the question: Who’s next? Which lawmaker will be willing to step up and take the political risk that goes with carrying a tax reform measure in the future?

Whoever it is might want to turn to Hillyard for some of his institutional knowledge on how to avoid the pitfalls — or perhaps avoid it altogether.

Moderate Utah

Aside from who won and who lost Tuesday night, there is, I think, a larger takeaway from the results: Utah remains something of an atypical red state.

No question, Republicans still are in control. That certainly didn’t change. But consider that, in the governor’s race, there were two very conservative candidates in Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright who were more closely tied to President Trump than the two moderate candidates, Cox and Huntsman.

The two conservative candidates combined took home less than 30% of the vote, while Huntsman and Cox combined for more than 70%.

Yes, Cox and Huntsman had advantages that helped propel them to the top — wide name recognition and good fundraising, chief among them. But Hughes and Wright are no slouches and still couldn’t get any traction among a Republican electorate.

And this isn’t just limited to the governor’s race. In the 1st Congressional District race to replace die-hard conservative Rep. Rob Bishop, Blake Moore is holding off Bob Stevenson, for now. Those are the two more moderate candidates in the race and they too combined for 60% of the vote.

So going back to the governor’s race, think about it this way. You have about 30% of Republican voters on the far right, the minority of the majority. And on the other side you have the Democrats who regularly get about 25% statewide.

Between those two is where most Utahns find themselves politically. We’re not Alabama. We’re not Trump Country. We’re not fanatics. We’re a center-right state. And whether it’s a moderate Republican or the moderate Democrat in Chris Peterson, that’s where we’ll continue to be.

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