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Robert Gehrke: Why Jon Huntsman shouldn’t run a write-in campaign for governor

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on May 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

To say that staging a successful write-in campaign for governor is a remote possibility is a pretty major understatement.

It’s kind of like saying that rapper Kanye West’s presidential run amid his erratic behavior and public struggles with bipolar disorder and his campaign rallies for President Donald Trump is a bit of an uphill battle.

Yet here we are. This week, Kanye filed the necessary papers to be on the Utah ballot and former Gov. Jon Huntsman is under continued pressure by supporters to try to exact write-in revenge for his loss in the June Republican primary.

Publicly, Huntsman has distanced himself from the quixotic write-in effort, saying last month that he appreciated the enthusiasm but “won’t be pursuing any efforts for a write-in campaign.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The “Draft Huntsman” supporters were unfazed, however. What they heard was that if he wasn’t going to pursue it, they would have to build such an overwhelming movement that he would have no choice but to take the plunge. And social media posts from his family teasing the potential bid have kept the speculation alive.

Now it’s getting to crunch time. If he’s going to do it, Huntsman has until Aug. 31 to declare his candidacy so clerks will count the write-in votes he receives. He is scheduled to meet in the coming days with the people spearheading the Draft Huntsman movement, and their case will go something like this:

• You’re the guy with the vision to lead (which, of course, every political candidate believes).

• His primary loss was narrow — about 6,300 votes — and 64% of Republicans voted for someone other than Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is now the Republican nominee.

• The 190,000 GOP voters who backed Cox are only about 14% of the roughly 1.3 million voters expected to cast ballots in November. They shouldn’t get to choose the next governor.

• With his name recognition and family money, Huntsman is uniquely positioned to pull off a write-in bid.

• On top of people asking him to run, his supporters are touting a text poll that showed 55% of respondents would write in for Huntsman.

The methodology of the poll is questionable and so are the results. For example, why would half the Republicans surveyed write him in when far less than half voted for him when he was actually on the ballot? And texting you’ll write someone in and actually doing it are different.

How do I know how the pitch will go? It’s the same pitch the organizers trying to draft Huntsman have been giving to reporters for the past several weeks.

It is true, Huntsman is perhaps the one candidate who could make a write-in campaign work.

“He’s not your typical candidate,” said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor. “A former governor, he’s been elected, he’s been reelected. He’s very well-known in the state, obviously, and somebody with a lot of resources.”

Ultimately, though, all this intrigue probably won’t matter. “It’s very unlikely” he runs, Burbank said. “It’s such a difficult task.”

Here is a list of all of the successful statewide write-in campaigns in U.S. history:

South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1954.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010.

That’s it.

(A write-in candidate won a vacant California Senate seat in 1946, but there were no candidates named on the ballot; they all were write-ins.)

Murkowski’s victory is perhaps the best comparison to a possible Huntsman run — she was well-known as the incumbent senator from an Alaska political dynasty and outspent her opponent by 3-to-1.

But Murkowski beat a tea party pick, Joe Miller, who upset her in the primary, and was clearly a fringe candidate. Like him or not, Cox, is a legitimate candidate, not part of the fringe.

Murkowski spent more than $40 for each of the 100,000 votes she got. But to win in a high-turnout presidential year, Huntsman would have to get something like 600,000 people to write in his name — more than any write-in candidate in history.

Let me do the math for you — $40 times 600,000 is $24 million. It won’t necessarily cost that much, but it won’t be cheap either.

Beyond the money, Huntsman would need a sophisticated campaign that is run to perfection, which is a wild card during a pandemic. Indeed, winning a Republican primary is easy compared to staging a successful statewide write-in campaign.

Finally, a write-in campaign would amount to Huntsman wagering his political future on a miracle.

OK, so he lost a close primary in historically difficult circumstances. But he still has options. He just turned 60. (For comparison, Donald Trump is 74, Joe Biden is 77, and Sen. Mitt Romney is 73.)

If Romney doesn’t run again in 2024, Huntsman would be a front-runner for that seat, or he could land a job in the next presidential administration, whoever wins.

Running and losing a write-in campaign would be devastating to those prospects, not to mention his legacy.

Losing a primary stings. Coming back with a write-in campaign would be a roll of the dice almost certain to fail and, ultimately, it is beneath him, little more than an attempt to get payback for a bruised ego.

And with Kanye running, we’ve already got more ego on the ballot that we can handle.

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

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