Spencer Cox, Greg Hughes earn place on Utah’s GOP primary election for governor, joining Jon Huntsman and Thomas Wright

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes will be on Utah’s primary election ballot for governor, after coming in second at the state convention following six rounds of ranked-choice voting, the Utah Republican Party announced late Saturday night.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who had already gathered enough signatures to take his place on the ballot, came in first at the convention, garnering 52.6% of the vote. They will join former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright on the June 30 primary ballot with the winner going on to face Democrat Chris Peterson in the November election.

Eliminated at convention were businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said more than 3,800 delegates were credentialed to participate in this year’s convention, with 93% participating in the voting.

While the conventions typically take place inside packed auditoriums, the coronavirus pandemic forced both Democrats and Republicans to hold their first-ever virtual nominating events. For GOP delegates, the voting process spanned days, opening Thursday morning and closing Saturday evening.

COVID-19 also required candidates to rethink their strategies for courting party supporters. Brown said the last few weeks have given delegates an opportunity to observe how candidates confront challenges.

“Every day as an elected official, you’re pretty much presented with problems, and every one of these candidates is faced with a problem that none of them actually anticipated,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier last week. “We sort of get this front row seat to watch how they solve a real-life problem.”

Instead of stopping by delegates’ homes or introducing themselves at town hall meetings, the candidates had to host online gatherings and pitch their conservative credentials in recorded speeches.

That presented a particular challenge for Hughes, who acknowledges he’s not a household name across the state and anticipated his ability to energize a room would help him overcome this deficit.

“We’re the Cinderella story,” he said Saturday night after the results came in. “I love it when people tell us what we can’t do.”

Hughes pitched himself to delegates as a bold decision-maker and no-frills communicator, qualities he says he learned during a hardscrabble youth in Pittsburgh. In recent weeks, the candidate has also been hammering at the state’s current slate of leaders for failing to adequately address the economic tailspin caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and he returned to that theme in his pre-convention messaging.

“The governor and lieutenant governor are waiting on others in this pandemic. They’ve created a vacuum of leadership that Democratic mayors are gladly filling with indefinite shutdowns and unconstitutional Orwellian government orders,” Hughes said in his recorded speech. “When I am your governor, that will never happen. The buck stops here.”

The former state legislator has called on the state to reopen the state’s economy right away, while maintaining social distancing and encouraging high-risk groups to remain in quarantine.

His running mate, Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, has shared Hughes’ exasperation with the way state leaders are handling the pandemic. In a string of mid-March text messages to Herbert’s top aides, he accused the governor and lieutenant governor of sitting idly by as the state’s economy goes up in flames.

These positions might have played well with party loyalists — a recent poll conducted by Utah Policy and KUTV 2 News found that three-quarters of strong Republicans surveyed were more concerned about the economic consequences of COVID-19 than about the public health impacts.

Hughes has also called attention to his decision to rely only on the convention process to earn a place in the primary. All other candidates explored the signature-gathering route, although several abandoned their efforts after the coronavirus hit Utah.

Interviewed recently, the former House speaker said he wasn’t sure if this show of trust in party delegates would sway them to his side, but hoped he’d sent a message.

“Delegates appreciate it that I have laid my fate at the feet of the delegates,” he said. “I am the candidate that decided early on that I was not going to gather a single signature.”

In a Facebook live video late Saturday, Cox thanked the delegates for their support, his fellow candidates for their willingness to enter the race and his running mate, Sen. Deidre Henderson, for leading the campaign while he’s been busy dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 in recent weeks.

While he wasn’t relying on the delegates for his spot on the ballot, Cox said their support will be vital as he enters the next phase of the campaign.

“That is just so helpful to have that really that stamp of approval and that recommendation of the delegates to the other Republican voters in the state of Utah for June," he said.

In his pre-convention speech to delegates, Cox drew attention to his role at the forefront of the state’s pandemic response, explaining that this critical work had consumed his time lately and taken him off the campaign trail.

“My only focus has been on protecting our health, preserving individual liberty and rebuilding our economy,” he said in the recorded speech to party insiders. “And you can trust that if elected governor, I will be focused on you, not the next job or office.”

Over the course of the campaign, Cox has taken swings at Huntsman, who left his position as Utah governor in 2009 to accept a position as U.S. ambassador to China.

As more moderate candidates than others in the race, Cox and Huntsman were at a perceived disadvantage going into the convention, where delegates tend to favor more hard-line conservatives. But in appealing to the delegates, Cox staked out a solidly conservative agenda “rooted in freedom, federalism and family” — mentioning his support for gun rights, opposition to abortion and belief in local control over education.

At the same time, he resisted the idea that conservatives are less compassionate than their left-leaning counterparts.

“I refuse to let our political opponents paint us as heartless simply because we believe in limited government,” he said. “We will push back against those who would have us believe that we are only one more tax increase or government program closer to prosperity.”

Huntsman was eliminated from the convention field in the third round of balloting.

Republican party insiders tend to be much more conservative than the population at large, and the candidates they choose to emerge from convention aren’t always the ones who win the primary.

In 2018, for example, Sen. Mitt Romney finished second at the Republican convention but pulled off an easy victory among primary voters. Rep. John Curtis badly lost the convention vote in 2017 but, because signature gathering put him on the primary ballot, he won handily.

The latest polling on this year’s gubernatorial race shows Huntsman in the lead among the gubernatorial hopefuls, with 32% of 312 likely Utah voters in the June primary election saying they would cast their ballot for the former Utah governor. Cox trailed behind him with 20%, while all the rest of the candidates received less than 10% of the vote.

That Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, conducted from Feb. 24 to March 1 had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

Though Saturday’s convention was meant to cull the number of candidates ahead of this summer’s primary election, it’s possible at least one more person could appear on the June 30 ballot.

Republican businesswoman Jan Garbett, who opted not to go through the convention process, failed to gather enough signatures to earn her spot and filed a lawsuit earlier this month asking a federal judge to prohibit enforcement of Utah’s signature requirements. If not for the limitations imposed in response to the coronavirus, she says she would otherwise have appeared on the ballot.

Court documents show all parties have agreed to an expedited timeline for resolving that lawsuit by Tuesday.