Sen. Mike Lee endorses Jon Huntsman for governor

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mike Lee answers questions at a town hall in Draper on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is throwing his support behind Jon Huntsman’s campaign for governor of the Beehive State — a move that is expected to improve the candidate’s chances of making it onto the ballot for June’s Republican primary election.

“I have seen firsthand what a remarkable leader and a true conservative Jon Huntsman really is,” Lee said Friday in a prepared statement. “In moments when it would have been politically advantageous to abandon his values, he has stood strong in defense of the principles Utah Republicans hold dear.”

Lee said Huntsman has advocated for local control of public lands, fought back against federal overreach on education issues and consistently “defended the rights of the unborn.” Lee also pointed to Huntsman’s service in diplomatic postings in Russia, China and Singapore, saying the former ambassador was trusted to handle some of the nation’s most significant international relationships.

The Utah senator, who served as general counsel in Huntsman’s prior administration as governor, does not typically make endorsements in Utah primary races, according to a news release. He chose to make an exception because of his firm belief that Huntsman is the best choice, the release continued.

“One of the best things I did as governor was to convince Mike to be part of our team,” Huntsman said in a statement. “He’s doing a remarkable job representing Utah and fighting for conservative principles in the U.S. Senate, and I am honored to have his support.”

Weighing in on the endorsement, Salt Lake County Councilwoman and gubernatorial hopeful Aimee Winder Newton called Lee and Huntsman an “unlikely duo.”

“It will be interesting to see how Lee supporters and Huntsman voters react," she said.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes characterized Lee as a “loyal guy” — “so it does not surprise me that he is endorsing his former boss,” he said in a statement.

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham was the most critical of the endorsement, noting that while he has a “lot of respect” for Lee, he was “disappointed” in his choice to back Huntsman.

“To me, this highlights more than ever the importance of a leader who doesn’t come with all the political entanglements that all the other candidates in this race have," he said. "We need someone who doesn’t owe anything to anyone and can make decisions based solely on what is best for the people of Utah.”

Lee’s endorsement lands just weeks ahead of the virtual state Republican convention on April 25 — where eight candidates will vie for the support of party insiders for a chance to get on the ballot.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor with the University of Utah, said an endorsement could help because Lee has “always been kind of a favorite of those delegates” who vote on party nominees at the convention.

“It doesn’t mean necessarily that Lee is going to swing their vote," he said. But it could, because of ranked-choice voting, "give Huntsman a way to pick up some second-choice votes even if he’s not necessarily the first-place favorite.”

Lee’s endorsement came out the same day a new poll from UtahPolicy.com and KUTV 2 News showed Huntsman in second place behind opponent Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in the gubernatorial contest.

Some 40% of the 641 likely Republican voters who responded to the survey said they would vote for Cox in the June 2020 Republican primary election compared to 33% who said they would vote for Huntsman. Hughes trailed in third with 16% support. No other candidate garnered more than 10% of support in the poll, which was conducted March 21-30 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

The Cox campaign celebrated its lead in a news release on Friday, calling the results “promising" — though Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork and Cox’s running mate, said that “political polls couldn’t be farther” from Cox’s mind as he responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, she said in a statement, “this moment provides a timely reminder that certain characteristics are necessary from our chief executive. Not only do Utahns want a consistent conservative, but they want a natural leader they can trust.”

The Cox campaign declined separately to comment on Lee’s endorsement of Huntsman.

Scott Riding, a managing partner for Y2 Analytics, the firm that conducted the poll, confirmed in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that he and another employee there were working for the Cox campaign. But he said they have been “firewalled” off from the partners who did the public polling with UtahPolicy and KUTV.

“Different partners leading the research. Different staff executing the research. No access to each other’s work except what is released publicly,” he said.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.