Jon Huntsman returns to Utah for possible run for governor, more than 10 years after his last

Washington • It’s been more than a decade since Jon Huntsman stood for office in Utah.

Back then, Huntsman was a rock star, literally taking the stage at the state fair to play the keyboard with REO Speedwagon and Styx to rave reviews.

The son of a legendary Utah businessman, he handily won the governorship in 2004 and took every county and 78 percent of the vote in 2008. He then resigned — to become the U.S. ambassador to China in 2009, with an approval rating shooting into the 80s.

As the now-U.S. ambassador to Russia, he plans to depart Moscow and return to his home state for a possible bid for governor — again — facing a state that has shifted in some ways and one with voters who may not remember his time in office so clearly.

“Has the state changed? I don’t know,” said Adam Brown, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. “But Huntsman has changed, and he’s also been away for a long time and the people who were giving him those ridiculously high approval ratings in 2008 and 2009 have had a long time to forget him.”

Huntsman is still a household name in the Beehive State, where his late father, Jon Huntsman Sr., headquartered his international petrochemical firm as well as a renowned cancer institute. Huntsman Sr. was, for a time, the state’s richest man and a prominent powerbroker. Huntsman’s mother, Karen, and many of his siblings remain involved in the community, including Paul Huntsman, the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.

But there could be lingering concerns about the fact Huntsman won reelection as governor and then resigned less than a year later to head to Beijing, only then to resign that post and run for president and now may want his old job back.

Some of that, Brown said, can be explained away as those close to Huntsman have argued — when his country calls, he answers.

“Huntsman left office shortly after reelection not to take a job at Fox News like certain others have done but to accept a presidential appointment, which voters presumably are more willing to forgive,” Brown said. “But the question is whether they’re willing to forgive that when [President Barack] Obama and [President Donald] Trump are the ones making the appointments — two presidents who have not been popular here.”

Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who resigned his elected position and took a job at Fox News, said the issues have changed in the state since Huntsman reigned, though name recognition goes a long way.

Instead of a recession, the economy is strong. The tech sector is booming, and housing prices are becoming problematic, which wasn’t the case when he was last governor.

“He’s well liked but he’s not nearly as conservative as he was when he first ran,” said Chaffetz, who managed Huntsman’s first campaign and then served as his spokesman, signaling that Huntsman may be vulnerable to an attack from the right, from someone, say, who is a Trump loyalist.

Chaffetz said Huntsman will “do well at whatever he chooses to pursue. I know he’ll throw his heart and soul in it. But it’ll be interesting if the state will buy into more Huntsman-Herbert. It’s been that way for a long time.”

After Huntsman left in 2009, his lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, took over and won reelection three times. He doesn’t plan to seek the office again.

Chaffetz said he understands there could be a backlash against Huntsman’s decision to leave elected office before but that can be overcome.

“I left the office before my term was up as well,” said Chaffetz, a former chairman of the House Oversight committee. “I think people understand his answering the call to serve his nation. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to his leaving to serve in the Obama administration only to turn around and run against him.”

Huntsman ran a short-lived presidential run in the 2012 cycle, when now-Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah emerged as the GOP nominee.

Huntsman, who remains an ambassador until Oct. 3, hasn’t commented about entering the gubernatorial race, though a poll by the Salt Lake Chamber showed he and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, were about even among voters surveyed. Cox, though, earned much more support among Republicans who would choose their nominee for governor.

Cox said this week as news broke about Huntsman’s resignation and possible gubernatorial run that he would welcome the challenge and that it would make him a better candidate.

Brown, who watches Utah politics, said he has no question Huntsman will enter the race.

“He’s going to do it,” Brown said. “He’s got the money. He’s got the opportunity to do it, and it’s going to be a wild race.”

Ron Fox, a Utah historical buff and longtime GOP hand, said that Huntsman may be coming in fairly late — the Utah primary is in June — and Cox is already a declared candidate on a tour to visit every city and town in the state. But that may not matter.

"I mean, you’ve got an established person with name ID that has an established reputation that comes back and enters into a process that was already pretty well down the road,” Fox said. "The thing that’s going to be most difficult, I think, for [Huntsman] is there’s a lot of people who have already endorsed, including our current governor, the lieutenant governor for office and a lot of people made financial commitments. And that’s going to be difficult. So it might force Governor Huntsman into the independent role, which he might do very well at.”

Huntsman hasn't signaled any intention to run as an independent, though it's not an impossibility.

The former governor also has an easier path to the GOP nomination because state law now allows a candidate who collects a sizable number of voter signatures to skip the Republican Party’s convention process to get on the primary ballot.

Huntsman also could benefit from a small shift in voters who have skewed a bit more moderate than when he previously ran. While there remains a core group of very conservative Republicans, there are also many who aren’t fans of Trump and voters overall have challenged the state Legislature by passing initiatives that allowed the use of medical marijuana and expanded Medicaid (though the Legislature later tweaked both voter-approved measures).

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the state is that although it remains as Republican a state as it has ever been," Brown said, “it was also the one state that deviated sharply from where it was in the past in the 2016 presidential election with some serious animosity to Trump’s candidacy.”

Editor’s note • Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.