New poll: Jon Huntsman leads pack of GOP gubernatorial candidates among likely primary voters

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is joined by his campaigns senior advisor and daughter, Abby, center, and his wife Mary Kaye as they arrive to join the other Republican gubernatorial candidates speaking to the Professional Republican Women of Utah during their membership luncheon at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

A new poll shows former Gov. Jon Huntsman has edged in front of his rival, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, in the GOP primary race for Utah governor, although nearly half of voters are still up for grabs in the contest.

About a quarter of likely Republican primary voters expressed support for Huntsman, while about 17.5% went for Cox, according to The Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University survey. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes came in third place with 6.5% support, with the remaining three GOP candidates hovering at around 1%.

But a large pool of potential primary voters — about 48% — remain undecided about who should replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert.

“The people of the state are independent-minded,” Huntsman said Thursday, commenting on the poll results. “They don’t want anyone to tell them for whom to vote. They want to make that choice.”

The survey of Utah residents age 18 and older was conducted by telephone, land lines and cellphones, between Jan. 18 and Jan. 22. The poll results on the Republican candidates were based on responses from 246 individuals who indicated they planned to participate in the GOP primary, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6.3 percentage points.

Cox said the results, which are largely in line with other polling he’s seen, confirm that the race is shaping up to be a showdown between him and Huntsman. To prepare for the road ahead, his strategy is to lay a strong campaign foundation by building grassroots support and a wide donor network, he said.

“We know it’s a marathon so what matters to us right now are the fundamentals of this race,” Cox said.

The Fairview Republican was among the first entrants to the gubernatorial race, and some previous polls of GOP voters have put him ahead of Huntsman, who didn’t declare his candidacy until November. While the Tribune survey indicates the former diplomat has gained momentum in the past couple months, the high number of undecided voters means the race is far from decided, said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

“The relatively modest totals for all of the candidates suggest that this race might have a little more fluidity than a lot of people have been thinking,” Cann said. “If [Huntsman’s] overall percentage is only 25%, that might actually be cause for concern that folks might not be jumping right back into bringing him back."

Another open question is whether all six GOP candidates will end up on the June 30 primary ballot — and what will happen to the supporters of any competitors who drop out before then, Cann said.

A campaign spokesman for Aimee Winder Newton, a member of the Salt Lake County Council who polled below 1%, highlighted the large numbers of voters who’ve yet to make up their minds.

"If the election were to be held tomorrow,” said spokesman Danny Laub, “Mrs/Mr. Undecided would be Utah’s next governor.”

In traveling the state, Laub said, Winder Newton is hearing repeatedly that “Republicans are ready for something a little different in the governor’s mansion — someone who can bring a fresh perspective to state government, but still has the experience and policy background.”

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham, who also garnered about 1% support among the likely primary voters, also said he was encouraged by the high undecided figures and predicted that his outsider status will help him win over people who are still on the fence.

“One of these things does not look like the other in this race. And that’s Jeff Burningham,” he said.

Thomas Wright, former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, polled below 1% despite his Jan. 16 announcement that U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, will join his ticket. His campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the poll.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright, left, announces Rep. Rob Bishop as his running mate in the 2020 election, during a press event at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Hughes said the early polling numbers are largely reflective of name recognition, an area where he feels disadvantaged because he’s never appeared on a statewide ballot. That puts additional pressure on him to introduce himself to voters, said Hughes, who officially entered the running earlier this month.

“Guess what? You don’t know who the speaker of the House is or was,” he said Thursday at a gathering of the Professional Republican Women of Utah. “I know that now.”

Five of the six GOP candidates made their pitch to the Republican women at the meeting, starting with Huntsman, who tried to head off concerns about his commitment to the state — especially in light of his midterm departure in 2009 for an ambassadorial posting in China.

“Will I leave if I’m lucky enough to be elected?” he asked. “No.”

All the candidates who appeared Thursday were generally complimentary of one another and promised to run an aboveboard race focused on policy, while acknowledging that they’re largely in agreement on the issues. So far in the contest, they’ve attempted to distinguish themselves by highlighting aspects of their personal histories and emphasizing different key issues.

Cox, who lives on a farm that’s been in his family for generations, is pitching himself as the candidate best positioned to bridge the gap between rural and urban Utah and will make education central to his campaign. Hughes says he’s proven himself as a no-nonsense fighter during his time in the Legislature, and Huntsman said he’ll focus on Utah’s impending growth and the mental health issues that beset the state.

In addition to surveying primary voters, the new Tribune poll asked 500 Utahns of all political persuasions which of the six Republican candidates and one Democratic candidate would make the best state governor. About 23% chose Huntsman, while 13% picked Cox and about 7% favored Democrat Zachary Moses. Nearly 46% were undecided on that question, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Cann said these numbers indicate Huntsman and Cox have the ability to reach a broader range of constituents compared to some of the other Republican contenders but noted the high level of uncertainty on this question, too.

“It suggests that a lot of Utahns are waiting to see what happens in the course of the campaign before they make a decision,” he said.

Tribune reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this report.

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