Jon Huntsman is exploring a return to Utah and possibly another run for governor

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jon Huntsman Jr., seen here in 2008 while he was Utah's Governor, may again seek the office. Behind him is Gary Herbert who was Lt. Governor at the time.

What will life after Russia hold for Ambassador Jon Huntsman? Perhaps a return to the Utah governor’s mansion.

Huntsman has told friends in Utah that he is considering life after his tenure in Russia and he’s not sure what his future will hold, a sign his time as ambassador may be drawing to a close, according to a half dozen sources familiar with the conversations, who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune on the condition of anonymity.

Huntsman has been encouraged to consider a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 or to make a third run for governor, the seat he left in 2009, when it is up again next year. A Senate bid is highly unlikely, sources said, but Huntsman is considering taking another shot at the state’s chief executive office.

For now, Huntsman is saying only that there is “nothing to consider until our current commitment is done.”

Huntsman’s name was floated as a potential contender for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat in 2018, but he was nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to Russia. Hatch opted to not seek re-election and was succeed by Sen. Mitt Romney.

If Huntsman ran, it would be unprecedented in Utah politics, becoming the first governor to seek nonconsecutive terms. If he won, he would replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who took over for Huntsman when he was picked by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to China.

After his stint in China, Huntsman briefly mounted a run for U.S. president in 2012.

Herbert has stated that he will not seek re-election next year, teeing up an open governor’s race that has drawn the interest of — and speculation around — a number a potential Republican candidates.

Huntsman’s return — with widespread name recognition, deep pockets and broad popularity, especially among Utah moderates — would drastically alter the landscape. Currently, the most high-profile potential candidates are Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

Hughes and Cox have begun raising money for a potential bid, but neither has formally filed or announced their candidacy. Others are also discussed as possible candidates, including former Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, Republican National Committee member Thomas Wright and real estate investor Jeff Burningham. All are Republicans.

In a prepared statement, Cox reacted to the reports of Huntsman’s potential candidacy by expressing gratitude for the ambassador’s service to the state and country.

“I personally owe him a debt of gratitude,” Cox said. “If he didn’t resign early [as Utah governor], it’s very unlikely I would later get a chance to serve as lieutenant governor with Governor Herbert. I also believe that having more choices for governor is good for Utah.”

Cox said he would make a decision about his own candidacy “when the time is right,” and that he wishes Huntsman and his family the best with whatever they choose to do.

Chaffetz, who has been a contributor on FOX News since retiring from Congress, said Monday that he is a “definite maybe” for a gubernatorial run, and that he hasn’t spoken with Huntsman since the ambassador went to Russia. Chaffetz ran Huntsman’s gubernatorial campaign and served as Huntsman’s first chief of staff, but the two are no longer close.

Hughes, who worked on key legislation with Huntsman during his governor’s tenure and was close with Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was in China on Monday and could not be reached for comment, but his former House chief of staff, Greg Hartley, said Hughes has high respect for Huntsman and his family.

“They’ve become close friends and communicate often and would both likely support each other in future endeavors,” Hartley said.

It appears no decision is imminent. Huntsman is expected to be back in the United States this summer for the births of his grandchildren.

Editor’s note: Ambassador Jon Huntsman is the brother of Tribune owner and publisher Paul Huntsman.