Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox edges ahead in latest poll of potential Republican candidates for governor

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox hands over the certified election results decree signed by fellow members of the state board of canvassers, Nov. 26, 2018 in the Utah Capitol boardroom.

Utah’s lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, has not yet — formally — decided to run for governor, but he’s the first choice among Republican voters to take the state’s top job in 2021, according to a new poll.

Cox was the preferred candidate for 28 percent of respondents, followed closely by former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz at 27 percent, according to a Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of 311 registered Republican voters. The poll did not include any potential Democratic candidates because no prominent names have as yet surfaced in the contest.

“As lieutenant governor, I understand the weight of a decision to seek the office of governor," Cox said in a prepared statement. "While we haven’t yet made that decision, these poll numbers are a big change from last fall and very encouraging.”

The survey, conducted by the Hinckley Institute Jan. 15-Jan. 24, shows a 12-percentage-point swing in Cox’s favor compared to a similar poll conducted in October. Chaffetz had consistently led the pack of potential candidates in early polling, and his support level rose from 25 percent in October to 27 percent in the new poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

“I like where I’m at,” Chaffetz said. “I know the lieutenant governor is campaigning full time, and I’m not.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While Cox has not officially declared his candidacy, he has taken a series of steps in recent weeks that suggest the imminent launch of a campaign. He headlined a pricey fundraiser in January, hosted by Gov. Gary Herbert. Cox also has taken an increasingly public role on issues like homelessness and Operation Rio Grande and has assembled a stable of political advisers outside the auspices of his duties as lieutenant governor.

Chaffetz said a 2020 run for governor is a “definite maybe" but added that a final decision likely will not come until this fall, roughly a year before voters go to the polls.

“It’s a very important role," he said. “I’m sure the voters will shake the tree and see who is the strongest.”

Nearly a fourth of the poll’s participants indicated “don’t know” when asked whom they would support for governor, down from 36 percent in January.

The support level was relatively unchanged for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who was selected by 10 percent of participants in the new poll compared with 11 percent in October.

Devin Wiser, Bishop’s chief of staff, said the congressman is flattered to receive support in polling, but that the election is a long way off and Bishop has not yet made any decisions on his post-Congress life.

“Personally, though,” Wiser said. “I’m pleased Utahns recognize how qualified he is for the position.”

Bishop was followed in the poll by former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Attorney General Sean Reyes, both of whom received the support of 4 percent of participants.

Hughes said he’s “actively looking” at a gubernatorial run and is courting potential donors as he considers his next move.

“I’m not much of a ribbon-cutter, but I do think there’s some pretty critical issues,” Hughes said. “I’ve developed an appetite and a taste for being able to get some difficult things accomplished, whether it’s Operation Rio Grande or medical cannabis.”

Polling this far in advance of the election reflects name recognition more than anything, Hughes said, conceding that he's at a disadvantage there.

“I would love to think that everybody knows who the speaker of the House is, but it turns out they don’t. I’m not on a cable news program, and I’ve not been on a statewide ballot,” he said. “I think that’s OK. I think that’s what campaigns are for.”

Alan Crooks, a political consultant for Reyes, dismissed the poll results, as he has with previous surveys by The Tribune and Hinckley Institute.

“We still do not give a flip about a Tribune poll,” Crooks said.

The poll’s list of potential candidates also included former Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller and Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Director Natalie Gochnour. Miller and Gochnour were supported by 2 percent and 1 percent of participants, respectively.

“I have no plans to be on the ballot in 2020,” Gochnour said. “I’m committed, absolutely committed to the public policy institute I lead.”

Miller said his conversations with colleagues in the state suggest he’d have significant support if he chose to run for public office.

“I am evaluating multiple options regarding how to best serve our community and state over the next few years," he said.

The poll did not include Jeff Burningham, a Provo real-estate investment entrepreneur who recently announced the creation of a fundraising committee, the hiring a campaign manager and the launch of a campaign website for a 2020 gubernatorial run.

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.