Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Fairview Republican who says his meteoric political rise has surprised him as much as anyone, announced Tuesday that he’s setting his sights on the state’s highest elected office.
“After much prayer and deliberation, [wife] Abby and I are excited to announce we are running for governor of the great state of Utah in 2020,” Cox said in a video.
“Serving as lieutenant governor during one of the most successful periods in state history has provided me with the knowledge and experience necessary to sustain our prosperity and take full advantage of important opportunities ahead.”
The announcement came as no surprise. Cox has said for years he was considering a bid to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert. But Cox said his deliberations began in earnest several months ago, after Herbert privately confirmed he wouldn’t seek reelection and nudged his protégé to run for the gubernatorial post.
Cox said his administration would differ from Herbert’s in part because the state’s circumstances have changed. Herbert took office as the state was in the throes of the Great Recession and concentrated on guiding it out of economic uncertainty. With the state now in a time of expansion, state leaders will have to reckon with the accompanying strain on transportation networks, schools, air quality and the affordable housing supply, Cox said.
“How do we maintain what’s so great about Utah and got us to this point, so we don’t lose that identity but make space for this incredible growth that’s happening?” he said.
Deciding whether to run involved prayer and talking to friends and family, but it also meant checking the poll numbers, and Cox said he was encouraged by what he saw there; earlier this year, a survey by The Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics put him in first place, ahead of six other potential Republican contenders for governor. No Democratic hopefuls have yet emerged.
“You know, people say, ‘This is a dream come true?’ It’s not a dream come true. I didn’t even dream about stuff like this where I’m from," Cox said Tuesday in his temporary campaign offices just across the street from the governor’s mansion.
Fairview, a 1,250-population community in Sanpete County, has been home to generations of Coxes, and the family continues to farm there today.
Before he entered politics, Cox worked as vice president and general counsel at CentraCom, a telecommunications business founded as a telephone company in early 20th century. It has been managed by the Cox family since 1919 with operations today in nine Utah counties.
He was first elected to the Fairview City Council in 2004 and has since served as mayor, Sanpete County commissioner and state representative. He was still in his freshman year as a state legislator in 2013, when Herbert plucked him from relative obscurity to serve as lieutenant governor. In 2016, he and Herbert were re-elected after winning the Republican primary by a wide 44 percentage points.
Cox said he and his wife, Abby, sometimes miss the simplicity of their life before statewide prominence.
“We love Utah and serving the people of Utah, but the toxicity of campaigning made this a difficult decision for our family,” Abby Cox said in the campaign video. “Too many good people won’t run for office because campaigns have become too destructive, and we want to show it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“I am very grateful to Governor Herbert for his encouragement as well as the thousands of Utahns who have showed us their support in recent months,” Spencer Cox said. “Tomorrow’s opportunities must be embraced with dynamic and inclusive leadership, which is rooted in conservative principles and aims to build better communities throughout our state.”
Herbert, who in January hosted a fundraiser for Cox, on Tuesday spoke warmly about his lieutenant governor.
“Jeanette [Herbert’s wife] and I are excited to see the lieutenant governor and his lovely wife, Abby, make this decision. We sincerely wish them well and hope for their success,” Herbert said in a prepared statement.
If Cox wins the race, he’ll become the first lieutenant governor in Utah history to ascend to the governorship by election rather than appointment. Lieutenant governors sometimes have a hard time differentiating themselves from their bosses, a feat Cox will have to pull off to clinch victory, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“He has been part of the economic success that Utah has been seeing under Governor Herbert," Perry said, “but for him, he’s going to need to show that he is his own brand.”
Cox said he’ll pursue both the signature-gathering and caucus-convention paths to the ballot.
“I do believe in and care about the caucus-convention system,” he said. “At the same time, gathering 28,000 signatures from registered Republicans is really hard. And you have to have grassroots support to do that. ... I’m going to go out and prove we have that support.”
Perry said the lieutenant governor is clearly a front-runner in the race, and while a number of prominent people are said to be eying the governor’s mansion, Cox’s early-bird campaign launch could discourage some of them from jumping in. Cox’s timing also gives him a chance to sweep up donor dollars that candidates will be fighting over later in the contest.
“People are going to have to start picking sides,” Perry said.
Cox has made a name by often doing what is unexpected for a Utah Republican leader.
That includes a now-famous speech urging kindness for the LGBTQ community and apologizing for his own past mistreatment of gays. A video of it went viral globally.
He’s also pushed employers to hire refugees, prayed for Mexican earthquake victims, coordinated Operation Rio Grande to help the homeless, criticized Republican President Donald Trump, was the first to call for impeachment of then-Attorney General John Swallow, another Republican, and challenged the caucus-convention system dear to the GOP’s right wing for usurping power from others.
Cox says part of that springs from “a compassion for the underdog” he developed in some dark times, including when he considered suicide as a youth after his parents divorced and he felt like an out-of-place “nerd with big glasses” — and school bullies even dumped him in a trash can “in front of everyone.”
Part of it also comes because he almost turned down the lieutenant governor’s job and says he doesn’t like it nearly enough to “compromise what I believe in” — or to shy away from politically tricky, tough jobs that need doing, such as Operation Rio Grande.
“This is liberating,” he said during an earlier interview while looking around his home on a 14-acre farm in Fairview.
“If people like what I say and do, we’ll serve. If people don’t like it — even better. I get to come back here.”
As lieutenant governor, Cox has commuted 200 miles roundtrip daily from Fairview. But he says if he is elected governor, he will live in Salt Lake City — and maybe head home to Fairview on weekends.
Cox is the first major candidate to jump into the governor’s race officially. Among others mentioned as possible GOP candidates include former Gov. Jon Huntsman, former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller and Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Hughes on Tuesday said it’s too early for him to make an announcement about a potential 2020 run, especially with this year’s municipal elections still on the horizon. Chaffetz declined to comment on Cox’s entry to the gubernatorial race.
Editor’s note • Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.