Calling her a “great leader” and a “historic figure,” Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman named Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi as his running mate in the upcoming gubernatorial race in an announcement made on his social media accounts Friday.
Kaufusi, who was elected as the city’s first female mayor in 2017, said in the video announcing the decision that she was “excited,” “honored” and “privileged” to join the race.
“I’m in 100%,” she said. “The Kaufusi team is in 100%, and we’re going to win it.”
Huntsman — the front-runner in the race according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll — is the second candidate to choose a running mate in the upcoming gubernatorial race. Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright announced last month that Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, would be his running mate — the first time in memory that a Utah member of Congress has left Washington to run in the No. 2 spot in a governor’s race.
Bishop released a statement Friday welcoming Kaufusi to the race on behalf of the Wright campaign.
“We’re going to have a great time exchanging ideas about the state of Utah,” Bishop said.
The coming election is expected to be a defining one for Utah, determining who will lead the state through a period of rapid growth and significant challenge.
Huntsman told The Tribune on Friday that he only recently became acquainted with Kaufusi while meeting with various elected leaders throughout the state as part of his gubernatorial campaign. He said there was a natural connection around common policy objectives, and that he found Kaufusi to be “probably the most impressive elected official I’ve met in the state.”
Huntsman praised Kaufusi’s passion for public service, and said she brings an important local perspective to the ticket due to her experience as a mayor and former member of the Provo School District Board of Education.
“With Michelle," Huntsman said, “I feel that we absolutely hit a home run."
Kaufusi, who was born and raised in Provo, has a degree in geography from Brigham Young University with an emphasis in global studies and local government and served for six years on the Provo school board, part of that time as president.
During her campaign for mayor, she ran on a platform of strong neighborhoods, vibrant economic development and responsible fiscal management.
Huntsman defeated Utah’s only female governor, Olene Walker, and a large field of other Republican candidates in winning his first election to the office in 2004. He plucked one of those GOP rivals out of the pack to be his running mate, County Commissioner Gary Herbert, who, like Kaufusi was an elected official in Utah County, the state’s second most populous.
Huntsman won a second term in 2008. He resigned the following year to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama while Herbert, his then-lieutenant governor, ascended to the top state post and won three subsequent elections.
Huntsman left the ambassadorship in Beijing and ran against Obama among a large field of GOP challengers in 2012 but dropped out early in the race. He later served as ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump, resigning last year to move back to Utah and announce his candidacy for a third term.
He told The Tribune at the time of his announcement that 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.
Asked Friday about her potential to become governor of the state, as Huntsman’s last lieutenant governor did, Kaufusi said her priority is helping the Huntsman campaign and preparing for her role in the administration.
“I am focused on lieutenant governor," she said, “and trying to wrap my arms around that.”
Other declared 2020 Republican gubernatorial candidates include Wright, Provo businessman Jeff Burningham, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes.
In a prepared statement, Burningham said that Huntsman’s choice shows that it is the Burningham campaign with momentum in the race.
"He picked someone from my own backyard because he knows I am the only candidate with a viable chance to beat him in June,” Burningham said.
And Burningham’s campaign manager, Adrielle Herring, said that Kaufusi should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the other candidates for governor, because she “likely will be governor when [Huntsman] leaves Utah again for his next big political move.”
Huntsman has stated that he intends to complete his term, if elected, and reiterated on Friday that he has no intention of seeking higher office if Utahns choose him as their next governor.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Greg Hartley, spokesman for the Hughes campaign, welcomed Kaufusi to the race in a prepared statement, adding that “[we] look forward to getting to know her as the campaign develops.”
And Heather Barney, spokeswoman for the Cox campaign, said when Cox selects a running mate, it will be someone sure to keep Utah’s winning track record going.
“The Herbert-Cox administration has led Utah during the most prosperous decade in our history,” Barney said. "Lieutenant Governor Cox will select someone who will work hard to continue that success and shares his conservative vision for Utah’s future.”
The Winder Newton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.