Jon Huntsman’s entry into Utah governor’s race sets up a ‘showdown for the ages,’ says political scientist

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former two-term Gov. Jon Huntsman, 59, announced his bid for governor, Nov. 14, 2019. Huntsman fielded questions after an appearance at the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Thursday.

Former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman says he’s grown weary of the national political scene, with its “theatrics,” time-wasting and dearth of meaningful action.

Now, he’s asking Utah’s voters to return him to what he calls “the best job in the world” — working as governor.

“For a very long time, we’ve served our country in the top two diplomatic posts in the world. Now we feel it is time to give back to our home state again,” Huntsman said on a campaign video posted Thursday morning. He’s vying for a third term as governor in the 2020 election, a little more than 10 years since he last held the post.

Rumors have been circulating for months that the former governor was considering another campaign — and, for many, his decision to relinquish his ambassadorship in Russia after two years to move back to Utah last month served as confirmation of his political intentions.

News leaked Wednesday night that Huntsman would be kicking off his campaign Thursday, and he did with an early call-in to KSL radio and by launching his website and campaign materials. He spoke to students at Southern Utah University in Cedar City later in the day and planned to appear Friday at a Dixie State University forum in St. George.

Huntsman said on KSL that he believes Utah is nearing an “inflection point" — the growth the state is enjoying won’t last forever, and he predicts difficult decisions will be necessary to stay ahead of the curve.

“We’re going to have to be better, faster and smarter than anybody else,” he said.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week, granted on the condition it be embargoed until his formal announcement, Huntsman said he wanted to reclaim the Utah governorship because it was the most honorable position he’s held in his career and because he’s eager to finish what he started during his previous terms.

[Listen to the full “Trib Talk” podcast interview or read a transcript here.]

"If you feel that you helped to get the state, in part, to where it is today, in areas around economic development, education, the environment and other areas, then ... I have to conclude by saying we're not done," he said. "I think this state is just getting going."

Early surveys have suggested the gubernatorial contest could be a showdown between Huntsman and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, both of whom are polling well ahead of other potential Republican rivals. A recent poll by the Salt Lake Chamber showed that Huntsman bested Cox when all voters were surveyed, while the lieutenant governor had the lead among Republicans. Democrat Zachary Moses has also entered the running.

Two minutes after Huntsman’s gubernatorial news release went out Thursday, Cox’s campaign announced that the lieutenant governor has been endorsed by 125 Utah mayors. Cox has spent the past six months touring the state in a campaign RV on a mission to hit all 248 cities and towns in Utah; he’s made it to 198 so far.

“Not only is it critical for the governor to have a personal relationship with city leaders, but also a direct knowledge of the issues they face,” Cox said in a prepared statement. "My door will always be open to local government and I promise to work day and night to build thriving communities across Utah.”

Cox is casting the race as a David vs. Goliath matchup and tweeted a drawing of the epic, biblical duel without comment Thursday morning — but in a later post cataloged Huntsman’s relative advantages when it comes to personal wealth and family prominence.

Adam Brown, political science professor at Brigham Young University, says he doesn’t necessarily view Cox as a David figure, considering the lieutenant governor’s prominent current position and his backing from Gov. Gary Herbert.

“This is more of a Goliath vs. Goliath,” Brown said during a Thursday interview. “This is going to be a showdown for the ages.”

Cox and Huntsman are similar in their self-styling as conservative Republicans who are willing to listen and consider differing viewpoints without resorting to partisan attacks, Brown said. In that sense, voters might struggle to distinguish between the two when it comes to tone and policy positions, he said.

“I have a hard time," he said, “and I do this for a living.”

While Brown suspects the two political heavyweights could squeeze out other candidates, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said Huntsman’s entrance won’t scare him away as he considers his own run. Hughes said he’s been fundraising for a gubernatorial bid and is “continuing in that direction undaunted,” with the hope of making an announcement soon.

Hughes said he wouldn’t view the contest as a fight against political rivals but as an opportunity to win over the Utah electorate.

Huntsman’s opponents in the Republican primary have already taken shots at him for exiting his gubernatorial post midterm to serve as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. Cox has pointed out that at the time, in 2009, Utah was in the throes of the recession.

Huntsman said he doesn’t regret his decision to answer the presidential call but says his future now is in Utah.

“I’m here to tell you, I’m not going anywhere. ... And I’m not much into the national political scene. I’ve been there. I’ve tried it,” said Huntsman, who made a brief run at the presidency in 2012. “It’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of theatrics and kicking up dust, and not a lot of effort that goes into problem-solving.”

Furthermore, Huntsman argues, his experience abroad would be an asset if he were elected Utah governor, empowering him to advocate for the state on both domestic and international fronts.

“Who’s best positioned to address our place in the world, which is going to become more and more problematic?” he said. “Because we’re competing not just against Nevada and Arizona and Colorado and California; we’re competing against Singapore and Hong Kong and South Korea.”

During a roughly hourlong interview with The Tribune, Huntsman expounded on some of the issues now facing the state, sharing his views on tax reform, conversion therapy and ballot measures. He also revealed he’ll pursue both tracks for getting onto the Utah ballot, by gathering signatures and participating in the GOP caucus-convention system.

Overhauling voter initiatives — as the Legislature recently did with propositions on Medicaid and medical cannabis — is not good public policy, Huntsman said, arguing the governor’s job is to close these divides between elected officials and the people the serve.

“That’s what leadership is,” he said. “Somebody’s got to stand in the breach and reconcile those differences. Otherwise, you know, you have an open wound, as we seem to have today.”

He generally got behind Herbert’s push for sales tax reform, although he wasn’t enthused that lawmakers have shown interest in hiking taxes on groceries; the state cut the sales tax on food during Huntsman’s administration, and he contends raising it again would harm lower-income families struggling to pay for the essentials.

Herbert — who’s in an interesting position as former second-in-command to one candidate and boss to another — has expressed support for Cox in interviews and has donated tens of thousands to his campaign.

Still, in a Thursday statement, the state’s current governor described Huntsman and his wife as good friends and voiced confidence that “Jon will acquit himself well on the campaign trail.”

At the Southern Utah University event, the newly minted candidate was asked to address a perceived lack of church-and-state separation in Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints generally “plays a responsible role,” Huntsman responded, but he did remember a couple of situations as governor when he experienced what he called a “pressure campaign.”

“I’m also of the opinion, having been governor, that to get some big things done in this state, you have to have some key partners,” said Huntsman, who is no longer active in the church, although he has previously described himself as a “cultural Mormon” who is proud of his roots. “And the LDS Church has to be a partner on some.”

Huntsman was popular as Utah’s governor, a post he held from 2005 to 2009, and had an approval rating topping 80% before he left to become U.S. envoy to China. He’s served as a U.S. ambassador under three presidential administrations — working in Singapore for President George H.W. Bush, China for Obama and Russia for President Donald Trump.

Huntsman declined to say whether he’d support Trump in 2020 but said there’s a pathway for the president’s reelection with Trump avoiding new wars and with the national economy strong.

In addition to Cox, declared 2020 gubernatorial candidates include Provo businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, and both of them welcomed Huntsman to the race Thursday. But, Burningham added in a prepared statement, the state needs “job-creating, innovative outsider” such as himself rather than a career politician.

Other Utahns preparing for, or considering, a gubernatorial run include Hughes and former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright, who tweeted Thursday that he appreciated the Huntsman family’s service and looks forward to a “healthy debate about the issues facing our state” if he joins the race.

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