Utah’s major Republican governor candidates all back Trump for reelection

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah gubernatorial candidates meet for a debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit convention, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

All six major Republican candidates to become Utah’s next governor indicated support for President Donald Trump’s reelection during a debate Friday, even as the embattled president stands trial for impeachment in Washington, D.C.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, front-runners in the race according to recent polls, both said they’ve had their disagreements with Trump but would back him as their party’s nominee.

During the hourlong debate at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, Huntsman praised Trump for creating an “economic dynamo for this country” and deflected a question about his assessment of the president’s call with the leader of Ukraine. Cox predicted that Trump would recapture the presidency and win in Utah, even if he sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

"His style of politics is not the Utah Republican style of politics," Cox said. "We just have to understand and accept that."

After questioning Huntsman and Cox directly about Trump, the moderator turned to the other four candidates — businessman Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP chairman Thomas Wright.

“Is there anyone on this stage who does not support president Trump?” moderator Clint Betts, executive director of Silicon Slopes, asked the candidates.

None of them raised their hands.

Hughes for one, was among the original supporters of Trump in Utah and campaigned for him in 2016. And Wright was helping lead the president’s reelection effort in Utah but recently stepped back to focus on his own campaign.

This unanimous support for Trump comes as the president’s popularity reaches new heights in Utah. While Trump earned less than half the Utah vote in 2016, nearly 57% of Utahns now say they support him, according to a recent poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University.

An experienced diplomat, Huntsman was asked for his professional opinion of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the U.S. president called for an investigation into Joe Biden and his son. Trump has characterized the phone call as “perfect," and Betts asked Huntsman if he agreed that the conversation was just fine.

"Whether it was fine or not, the call happened," Huntsman said. "Did anything happen as a result of the call? No."

Huntsman never directly answered the question but said if the international phone calls of past presidents became public, people would probably find many of them questionable.

There were several skirmishes between candidates during the debate, in which the rivals were permitted to interact and offer rebuttals. One of them flared up as Cox was critiquing the state for doling out tax incentives to attract out-of-state companies, during a time of record-low unemployment in Utah.

Betts pressed the lieutenant governor to explain why he hasn’t done more to change the way economic incentives are awarded under the administration of his boss, Gov. Gary Herbert.

“I’ve been pushing for this,” Cox replied. “There are a lot of interests that are aligned against me on this. It turns out you have a lot more authority as governor than lieutenant governor, so that’s why I’m running for office.”

That’s when Hughes jumped in to say Cox couldn’t “ride the wave” of the economic successes Utah has enjoyed during Herbert’s tenure, yet distance himself from problems around incentives awarded by the administration.

“It’s ironic that this would be coming from the speaker of the House who actually does legislation and didn’t get anything done on that,” Cox shot back. “So this year, we are running a bill to make that change now that we have a speaker who’s willing to do it.”

These potential reforms, Cox said, would steer more financial incentives toward local businesses and companies that create better-paying jobs.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Utah gubernatorial candidates, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton, Jon Huntsman, Thomas Wright, Greg Hughes and Spencer Cox pose for a group photo with Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts, center, after a debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit convention, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

Another run-in came toward the end of the debate, when Wright and Hughes were talking about creating affordable housing. The state's next governor, Wright said, should work with local municipalities to combat the stigma that often bogs down conversations about lower-cost housing.

But Hughes said the focus shouldn’t be only on the state’s urban and suburban cores and called for directing growth into rural Utah so people aren’t forced into the expensive Salt Lake housing market.

"You want to deal with congestion and all the issues and development and housing?" Hughes said. "We've got to invest in this whole state and the economic prosperity of more than just the Wasatch Front."

Wright agreed that the state should work on creating economic opportunity in rural Utah, without ignoring the need for affordable housing on the Wasatch Front.

"I love it when two developers get talking about affordable housing," Huntsman quipped about Wright, a real estate broker (he later said he's not a developer), and Hughes, a developer and property manager.

“And I love it that every four years, people suddenly get interested in rural Utah, where I live,” Cox returned.

Asked whether she understands the concerns of rural Utah, Winder Newton said she spent time in all 29 of Utah’s counties before jumping into the race for governor. To help some of these economically struggling communities, she said, the state should focus on expanding broadband networks, so residents in remote areas have the option of telecommuting or starting homegrown businesses.

Another priority should be to equip young people with the skills they need to become entrepreneurs, she said.

“Education is a huge part of this, and as I look at the state and education overall, I’m very concerned,” Winder Newton said.

Toward the beginning of the debate, Burningham detailed how he’d approach tax reform as governor, in the wake of two recent unsuccessful attempts to overhaul the state’s tax code. Burningham said he would restore a dependent exemption for families, look to cut government spending, simplify the tax system and advocate for a transparent policymaking process.

Transportation and education funding should also be top priorities in any future tax reform effort, he said.

“I’ve been an outspoken critic of this tax reform,” he said. “I am with the people.”

Friday’s debate was open only to gubernatorial candidates who have raised more than $50,000.

Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, Tribune owner and publisher.