Portage • Mayor Nic Tree and a small band of residents were waiting assembled outside their town hall at the arrival of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s campaign bus, a recreational vehicle plastered with a larger-than-life photo of the gubernatorial candidate’s grinning face.

Within seconds, they were engulfed by the Cox Crew — a campaign manager, videographer, bus driver, several general purpose volunteers, a state senator and his wife, Cox’s family members, the scheduler who keeps everyone on track and the 2020 hopeful himself.

The mayor and candidate quickly fell deep into conversation, ignoring the swirl around them and the dive-bombing wasps that nest in the town hall’s eaves. Tree described the challenges of surviving on a town budget of $70,000 and fighting fires with an engine from 1979; charming as it was to own an antique, he explained, Portage sorely needs a replacement for their “running museum.”

“We’ll take a 1985,” Tree joked.

The two-term mayor, who doubles as Portage’s assistant fire chief and works at a nearby cereal plant, later explained he’s not sure what Cox could do for the Box Elder County town, even from the governor’s mansion. But never before in his 38 years had he seen a gubernatorial candidate visit his hometown, which accounts for maybe 90 of the state’s 1.4 million active voters.

Cox “made a comment about how he’s from a rural city, too, and the little cities get forgotten,” Tree said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Portage was stop No. 76 for Cox on his campaign, or nearly a third of the way to his goal of visiting all 248 cities and towns in Utah — a feat he says no other statewide candidate has ever pulled off. With each municipality entitled to a campaign stop, it’s an itinerary that gives Salt Lake City equal billing with 170-person Snowville and has Cox investing significant time in towns that many candidates blow past on the freeway.

The campaign effort means the lieutenant governor has had to block off weeks of his official schedule so he can tour the state. (Cox says he hasn’t been derelict in his duties and asks volunteers to drive the bus, enabling him to work while in transit.) And at least one detractor, Rep. Phil Lyman of sparsely populated San Juan County, says the tour’s gimmicky nature won’t be lost on the communities Cox is visiting.

But Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said Cox’s personal story gives him credibility with rural voters.

“Spencer Cox is from rural Utah and it is an important part of his identity,” Perry said. “Cox’s effort to visit every city and town over the course of the campaign is not a new strategy but it is one he is uniquely qualified to undertake.”

‘No such thing as a coronation’

Stop No. 77 was inside Plymouth’s Nucor Steel, where Cox gave his campaign pitch to executives before a tour to watch the plant’s massive furnaces melt scrap metal into a glowing 3,100-degree syrup.

From across a conference room table, Nucor representatives asked Cox to size up his potential competition in the Republican primary race.

Launching his campaign in May, Cox was the first candidate officially out of the gate, he noted, although Utah County businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton are also crisscrossing the state as they explore potential gubernatorial bids.

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes has signaled interest in a run, he continued. And then there’s former Gov. Jon Huntsman, now serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia but reportedly preparing a return to Utah and, if voters will have him, to the governor’s mansion. Cox made sure to note that last time Huntsman was in office, he left midway through his term, as the state was dealing with a painful economic turndown.

“Governor Huntsman got to be the ambassador to China and left in the depths of the Great Recession; it was a good time to get out of here,” he told the Nucor representatives.

In response to these comments, former Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said the ambassador’s willingness to serve his country when called should be celebrated. “I’m confident that Utahns are grateful for Huntsman’s foresight and passion for economic growth during his tenure as governor,” she said, adding that his policies laid the foundation for the state’s economic recovery.

Given Huntsman’s deep pockets, name recognition and broad popularity, his entry into the race would drastically alter the landscape. But Cox informed the steelworkers that new poll numbers were about to come out showing him with a comfortable lead, even over Huntsman.

The following day, Wednesday, the Salt Lake Chamber announced the results of a survey that had Cox as the primary front-runner, about 15 percentage points ahead of Huntsman among Utah Republicans. One critic, Hughes supporter Greg Hartley, questioned the timing of the poll, when Cox is the only declared candidate actively campaigning.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Perry said Cox’s early start is helping him “build his statewide brand” before other interested candidates have even held campaign kickoffs. And during an interview last week, Cox said his early-bird status gives him time to prove his work ethic and that he’s not assuming voters will grant him a promotion.

“There’s no such thing as a coronation,” he said.

‘Where the people are’

The idea for the 248-city tour grew, Cox says, out of his hatred for campaigning paired with his love of people.

“We decided … what if we went to where the people are and visited everyone in Utah?” Cox said, adding that his team wanted to do service projects in as many communities as possible.

So he asked his parents if he could put a few bazillion miles on their RV, slapped his photo on the side and took off. The Cox Crew is trying to hit the farthest-flung counties during the sleepy summer months, when less is happening in state government, he said.

This was a 750-mile week, according to Cox’s campaign manager.

Early Monday morning, the campaign bus — loaded with Boomchickapop kettle corn, salted sunflower seeds and protein shakes — picked up each staffer from his or her home, then plunged northward for a sweep through Box Elder and Cache counties. Days on the road are long and can be sweltering; last week was the hottest yet, said Cox’s wife, Abby, fanning herself with a spare paper plate.

Cox and his campaign team say they never know what they’ll find when they arrive in a town. Sometimes only a few people are waiting. Other times, there are gatherings of dozens.

At night, the team members camp down at the cheapest motel they can find and wake up to do it all over again.

“I can’t even imagine the energy that this is going to take,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, who joined Cox for the Box Elder leg of the journey.

‘Back to the farm’

Cox says he chose his campaign colors, grass green and goldenrod yellow, as a nod to John Deere.

On his swing through rural Box Elder County early last week, Cox peppered his conversations with references to his agricultural roots. He talked about how his Fairview farm has been in the family for generations. How his wife grew up milking cows and feeding sheep. How he’s passing on the farming knowledge to his kids.

The story of his life so far has a kind of prodigal son echo, as he tells it: He was a country kid who grew up cursing his father for raising him on a farm and high-tailed it to a private law school and a prestigious firm. It wasn’t long before he became disillusioned with it all.

Cox says he and Abby realized after the birth of their three sons that they had to go back home.

“We knew we had to go back to the farm and raise them,” he told a group in a Fielding civic center. “We’ve been there ever since.”

(He did not mention that, aside from farming, he also worked as an executive for the telecommunications company his family founded and later sold.)

‘Standing up’

To Lyman, the self-promotional vein that runs through Cox’s bus tour will influence the way voters in remote areas view his visits.

“The motor home with the big face on the side of it sends a different message than, you know, someone who shows up in their pickup truck and comes to a town hall meeting,” Lyman said, adding that he spoke with Cox briefly in June, when the campaign stopped in Blanding.

The firebrand representative said San Juan County Republicans are more focused on Cox’s track record — and a number of them feel “neglected” by the lieutenant governor, believing he should’ve taken a more active role in the court battle over the county’s election districts.

Federal judges ultimately ruled that the county’s voting districts were racially gerrymandered in a way that disenfranchised Navajo residents and ordered the lines redrawn, resulting in the election last year of the first American Indian-majority commission in county history. As head of the state’s elections, Cox should’ve been more involved in the legal wrangling, Lyman argues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Bruce Adams, left, chairman of the San Juan County Commission and San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, at the Utah Capitol during the visit of President Donald Trump in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4, 2017.

This precedent could hurt Cox in a county where many residents are looking for a governor committed to “standing up to the federal government,” said Lyman, who added that former Speaker Hughes has proven himself as a fighter.

Austin Cox, who is not related to the lieutenant governor but is working as his campaign manager, said since visiting San Juan, Spencer Cox has “been working closely with [San Juan County] Commissioner Bruce Adams to help address some of these concerns.”

Lyman, a Blanding Republican, also believes federal politics, and candidates’ opinions on President Donald Trump, will matter to rural Republicans, at least those in his district.

Cox, on the other hand, has indicated he wants to avoid the bitter partisanship characterizing national politics and says rural voters seem more interested in job creation than Trump’s latest incendiary remark. Recently, rather than taking a position on a racist presidential tweet, Cox said he was “desperately trying to show there is a better way” by refraining from comment.

“Even the big Trump supporters don’t necessarily want him to be our governor. … People have been able to compartmentalize national politics with state and local,” Cox told The Tribune last week.

But Lyman isn’t alone in thinking national politics could play a significant role in local elections. Cox’s companion last week, Republican state Sen. Sandall, said his voters frequently ask him about Trump. Still, bedrock conservative issues — guns, abortion and economic policy — generally take precedence over presidential grenade-throwing, he said.

“You take those core values, and they will rise above what I consider small or differing opinions, even about President Trump,” Sandall, a Tremonton farmer and rancher, said.

‘A tough, tough situation’

The 248-stop tour is the first time in a while Cox has had to do any real campaigning.

Unless you count appearing on Herbert’s ticket, Cox, 44, hasn’t run for office since his 2012 campaign to become a Utah House member. He was still a freshman legislator when Herbert plucked him from relative obscurity to serve as his second-in-command.

As lieutenant governor, Cox helped Herbert advance his goal of creating 25,000 rural jobs by 2021, an initiative grounded in concerns that Utah’s economic prosperity was enriching the Wasatch Front while bypassing less populous parts of the state. The state has progressed toward the governor’s target by adding nearly 20,000 jobs in rural communities through 2018, a Herbert spokeswoman said Friday.

Still, economic development is one of the leading concerns for rural communities, Cox said, followed closely by roads, water resources and other service networks that city dwellers often take for granted.

Dave McDonald, who serves on the Dutch John Town Council in remote Daggett County, said his roughly 150-person community does struggle economically — most everyone works either in government or tourism — but believes that the state has limited power to solve the problem. State data shows Daggett County lost jobs after Herbert launched his rural employment initiative.

(Brian Maffly |Tribune file photo) Flaming Gorge Dam, built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, is a dominant feature of tiny Daggett County, pictured here in October 2018.

“It’s a tough, tough situation that we’re in up here,” said McDonald, who was out of town when Cox stopped by Daggett County but appreciated the visit.

In one potential game changer, he said, the state could begin returning more sales tax revenue to local governments. It would be a “rounding error” to them but a “huge shot in the arm” for places like Dutch John, which doesn’t even have a town hall, he said.

Cox said he often walks away from his campaign stops with long to-do lists based on his conversations with residents and business owners.

“In many of these smaller places,” Cox said, “they have issues that they just never communicated with us because they didn’t think they could or they didn’t know how.”

If he’s elected governor, he says, he’ll require his lieutenant governor to make the statewide trek he’s on now.

Editor’s note • Ambassador Jon Huntsman is a brother of Salt Lake Tribune owner and publisher Paul Huntsman.

Tribune reporters Benjamin Wood and Thomas Burr contributed to this report.