Cox asks supporters to redirect campaign donations during pandemic; other Utah guv candidates also pull back

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Norma Lasa, the planning and zoning officer for the town of Portage in Box Elder County places a heart shaped sticker next to her town after a visit by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as he attempts to visit each of the 248 cities and towns in the state during his gubernatorial campaign on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.

As Utah grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is discouraging supporters from donating to his gubernatorial campaign and asking them to give to friends and neighbors instead.

And, for the time being, his campaign is pulling down its television advertising and canceling events, Cox wrote in an open letter Friday.

“This is not the time for new expensive ads, fancy call centers or fundraising asks,” stated the letter, co-signed by Cox’s running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson. “It’s time for us to step up, sacrifice, innovate and help others.”

Rather than make campaign contributions, Cox suggested that supporters could use the money to support neighbors who are missing paychecks, leave larger tips at a restaurant or help a health worker cover child care expenses.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate oversees the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and has handed the reins of his campaign to Henderson. While the campaign has canceled upcoming events and moved its meetings online, Cox and Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, vowed to “work harder to make up the difference” before the June primary.

Fundraising totals through the end of January show the Cox campaign has raised nearly $1.7 million in the race so far. As of Saturday afternoon, a donation option was still prominently featured on his campaign website.

Other candidates in the GOP race have also paused aspects of their campaign.

Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright has said he is reaching out to voters and fellow party members via virtual town halls and social media instead of hosting in-person events.

“Ultimately, it’s our campaign’s responsibility to provide voters with the information they need to make an informed decision,” Wright wrote Saturday in a text message. “We were the first campaign to cancel town hall meetings on March 11 in the interest of public safety, and we’ve moved our entire campaign to online and direct mail communications."

Earlier this month, Provo businessman Jeff Burningham announced he had stopped gathering signatures to put his name on the June ballot because he was concerned about the public health risks of circulating a petition.

“I said a month ago that the money spent on this race could be better spent helping charities,” Burningham said in a prepared statement Saturday. “The health, safety, and financial well-being of Utah families is more important than any political self-interest.”

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said her gubernatorial campaign has refrained from asking for donations for the past couple of weeks.

“I know people are worried about their jobs, their 401(k)s and their families,” she wrote in a text message. “It has just seemed inappropriate.”

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, another GOP contender, said he would “encourage people to be charitable and thoughtful of others" during this difficult period. In a prepared statement, he added that if Cox “wants to trade places and go back to being a full-time candidate, and allow me to spearhead the Coronavirus Task Force, I’m ready to make that trade.”

Hughes has questioned whether Cox should be heading up the task force and has suggested the lieutenant governor’s candidacy distracts from the coronavirus group’s critical public health mission.

While gubernatorial campaigns across the board have canceled large events, some have continued to gather signatures. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is collecting signatures at specific sites around the state, although his campaign manager says volunteers are no longer going door to door.

Candidate Jan Garbett says she’s still door-knocking but is taking precautions to protect her campaign team and residents from infection. She has urged the state to begin accepting electronic signatures or extend the name-gathering deadline, but election officials say doing so would require a change in Utah law.

Reached Saturday, Garbett said her campaign fundraising will be “full speed ahead," and she made no apologies for it.

“Decades of raising money for those in need has given me practical experience in NOT cashing in on emotional roller coasters,” she wrote in a text message. “Now more than ever is the time we need to value helping fresh perspectives into an entrenched politically closed system.”

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