Utah’s candidates for governor struggle during pandemic precautions

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo the Utah governor candidates are pictured. From left, 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.

Jan Garbett, a relative newcomer to Utah governor’s race, has had to institute an unusual screening process for the volunteers collecting signatures to put her name on the ballot.

Before they can go door-to-door, she says, they have to earn a clean bill of health from a physician. Fevers are disqualifying. A cough will send you packing.

But even as restaurants and bars go dark and many Utahns hunker down in their homes to wait out the coronavirus, Garbett says her campaign doesn’t have the luxury of grounding its signature-gathering operation. Pandemic or no pandemic, she still has to collect 28,000 verified names if she wants to appear on the Republican primary ballot this year.

“This virus should not interrupt the democratic process,” she said in a phone interview this week. “But here in our state ... we’re caught in this really sad predicament.”

It’s a dilemma that could echo throughout this year’s race to replace Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than 10 years in the post.

The cancellation of gubernatorial forums and debates will deprive less-known candidates of key opportunities to go toe-to-toe with their higher-profile rivals, such as former Gov. Jon Huntsman or Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor with the University of Utah. Not being able to court voters and delegates in person will also be a larger setback for candidates who lack statewide name recognition, he said.

But in the end, no one really knows how the virus will reshape the race because there’s no precedent for it — at least not in living memory.

“I’m old, but I can’t think all the way back to the Spanish flu,” Burbank quipped.

But the candidates are already adapting to the new reality, one they expect will be dominated by virtual town halls and social media outreach instead of handshakes and backslaps.

Jeff Burningham last week announced that his campaign would stop gathering signatures; after several nights of tossing and turning, he concluded he couldn’t in good conscience send a troop of volunteers out to door-knock on his behalf.

“We don’t want to keep passing a pen or a packet or a clipboard from family to family, potentially spreading the coronavirus as we go,” the Provo venture capitalist told reporters.

On Tuesday, both Cox and Huntsman were accused on Twitter of continuing to gather signatures and putting the public at risk by ignoring social distancing recommendations. Cox’s campaign flatly denied the claim that its staff was still collecting names and said it had also instructed volunteers to stop gathering signatures. Huntsman’s team is not going door to door with petitions, his campaign manager said, but is giving people the opportunity to sign upon request.

Garbett said she’s implored the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which supervises elections, to let people sign petitions online or provide some other relief to campaigns struggling to meet the signature requirements.

“I got rebuffed,” she said.

Zachary Moses, a Democrat running for governor, said the barriers to electronic name-gathering have become a “point of contention” between him and the elections office. Moses said he’s suspended his signature collection operation and is focusing on qualifying for the ballot via the caucus-convention system, a process also greatly altered by the pandemic.

Allowing electronic signature-gathering or extending the submission deadline — which is April 11 for Republicans — would require changes to state law, said Justin Lee, the Utah elections director. Although the current state of emergency would empower Cox as lieutenant governor to change voting deadlines or early voting locations, nothing in the law gives him the ability to unilaterally change the signature-collection process, Lee said.

To do so, the Legislature would have to convene in a special session to amend the law, he said. And aside from the legal obstacles, Lee said there are also practical challenges to making these allowances, since the elections office doesn’t currently have the capability of verifying electronic signatures and would need months to acquire it. Pushing back the signature deadline would essentially mean delaying the entire primary election, he added.

“If you move one deadline ... the dominoes keep falling,” he said.

Thomas Wright, a former Utah Republican Party chairman, has already met the 28,000-signature threshold to qualify for the ballot, while the Huntsman and Cox campaigns say they have turned in the requisite numbers and are waiting for the state to verify them.

Aside from earning a place on the primary ballot, campaigns are also figuring out how to reach voters and party delegates, even as they’re hunkered down in their homes.

“It’s a surreal position to be seeking the vote of the people without really being able to engage them,” said Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman’s campaign manager. “He’d prefer to walk down main streets and talk to people one by one.”

Teleconferencing has replaced in-person meetings, by and large, and candidates Aimee Winder Newton and Greg Hughes say they’re planning some Facebook live events to introduce themselves to voters and give them campaign updates.

But Utahns could miss out on the opportunity to compare the gubernatorial hopefuls side by side onstage, as the coronavirus has already forced the cancellation of a slew of planned debates and candidate forums, they say.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) 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.

A Utah Education Association forum originally scheduled for this week has been postponed indefinitely, an organization spokesman confirmed. The Washington County Republican Women have canceled a debate planned for late March, and several other events slated for the coming weeks have also been called off, Winder Newton said.

Those cancellations and the limitations of social distancing are tough for less-well-known candidates who might have been relying on some “old fashioned schmoozing” to win over party delegates or voters, Burbank said. For instance, Hughes, a former Utah House speaker, acknowledges he’s not a household name across the state but anticipated his ability to energize a room would help him overcome this deficit.

That’s not an asset he can use now. And the arms-length campaigning he’ll have to do during the coronavirus isn’t especially in keeping with his personality, he said.

“Social distancing is not who I am, so we’re asking me to do something different than how I’ve lived every day of my life,” he said.

Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County councilwoman, said the social distancing measures are also a greater setback for smaller campaigns, with fewer donors and less ability to self-fund.

“I’m one of the candidates in the race that probably has the lowest budget," she said. “But for people who have high name ID or a lot of money, this absolutely is a benefit to them because they can buy a lot of digital ads, they can put up billboards, they can pay to mail [campaign literature.]”

A couple of the gubernatorial contenders mentioned the attention their rival, Cox, is currently receiving as head of the coronavirus task force, an appointment made by the governor, who has endorsed him in the race. Garbett said she believes his candidacy is a conflict of interest with his leadership of the state’s effort to control the pandemic. And Hughes argued that Cox’s political aspirations are an unnecessary distraction from the important and potentially lifesaving public health messages he’s trying to disseminate.

“Having an active candidate in this race as the point person for this ... I think that has the unintended consequence of cynicism,” Hughes said, adding that he believes Herbert should be heading up the task force.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks at a news conference in the state's Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, March 12, 2020 addressing the current state of COVID-19 in Utah. Representatives from the Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah Board of Education, Utah Jazz, local health authorities and Utah Department of Health were also present.

In a prepared statement, Cox said his top priority right now is “protecting the health and safety of Utahns" during the coronavirus crisis.

“All Utah leaders, Republicans and Democrats, are working together hand in hand to flatten the curve and minimize the number of illnesses and deaths from the virus,” he said. “This will remain my sole focus for as long as it is necessary.”

But there might be one upside to the stillness that’s descended as communities brace for pandemic, at least according to Wright. Perhaps, he said, it’ll give people time to pay attention to who’s running for governor.

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