Just months into his second term as Utah’s governor, Jon Huntsman resigned to become then-President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. That was in 2009.
Eleven years later, Huntsman has returned to Utah and is running to be the state’s chief executive again. In between, he ran for president, led a foreign policy think tank and served as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia.
He believes his experiences will benefit Utahns and he says he’s ready to turn his focus once again to his home state. He also promises that he would complete a full term, if elected.
Some of his political opponents say they don’t believe him.
And they argue Huntsman may use the governor’s office as a place to wait for his next high-profile national or international opportunity.
“Huntsman uses Utah like a backup, stand-by girlfriend,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, wrote on Twitter the day Huntsman announced his candidacy. “He only calls when the girl he really wants isn’t available."
Weiler is supporting Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who polls show is Huntsman’s main rival in the upcoming June 30 Republican primary. Cox, too, has taken some shots, though less directly, at Huntsman.
In a video to party delegates ahead of the state Republican convention last month — in which Cox came in first and Huntsman was eliminated in the third round of balloting — the candidate promised he would, if elected, “be focused on you, not the next job or office.”
That night, he unveiled a new campaign slogan that seemed pretty clearly aimed at his chief rival: “We are here. We have been here. And we’re not going anywhere,” he said.
The Cox campaign declined to comment further on Huntsman’s career trajectory and whether the new slogan was aimed at the former governor.
“The tagline speaks for itself,” Heather Barney, a campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Huntsman, for his part, said he has no aspirations for higher office that would pull him away from another stint as governor.
“That’s not even a possibility,” he said in a recent interview. “I know my political opponents have used it and they spin memes about it and they open and close their campaigns about it, but listen, I left to serve. I’ve done my service; I’ve done my federal service. I’m honored and delighted to have done so, but right now this is the most important work we can do.”
His campaign released an online ad Wednesday, in which Huntsman says: “Our federal service is done. We are here to stay. And my family and I will give Utah everything we have.”
Huntsman has faced similar questions before.
In 2008, during a campaign debate, Huntsman was pressed by Democratic challenger Bob Springmeyer on whether he would commit to serving the full four years.
“That’s exactly what I intend to do,” Huntsman replied.
He resigned roughly a year later to be the ambassador to China. He then left that job to run for the White House, a bid that ended when he came in third in New Hampshire in the 2012 contest in which Mitt Romney eventually won the GOP nomination but lost to Obama in the general election.
In 2014, Huntsman said he would be open to another presidential run if the conditions were right and since then his name has been floated as a possible secretary of state for a Republican president. He also contemplated a Senate run in 2018, for the seat Romney now holds, before accepting Trump’s nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
He announced his gubernatorial campaign last November, a month after leaving his post in Moscow.
Appearing on The Tribune’s “Trib Talk” podcast, Huntsman reflected on leaving Utah more than a decade ago, saying it was a “really tough call” when Obama asked for his help after his 2008 reelection as governor.
“You’re serving a state. You’ve been reelected. There’s a lot underway, a lot happening. And you have to make a call,” Huntsman said. “I don’t regret any of that. But I’m here to tell you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m proud of our service. I’m proud of what I did here as governor. This is our future here.”
Despite the jabs from Cox and his supporters, Huntsman argues his work experience should be seen as a benefit for Utahns.
“I’ve been criticized for taking a call from my president to go overseas to work,” he said during a recent debate. “Some people will never forgive you for that. A lot of people think it’s pretty great and here’s why I do: because you learn a lot when you are out serving your country as an American.”
The knowledge he’s gained about exports and business abroad, he said, would help him get Utah back on its feet faster after the economic fallout related to COVID-19 than any of the other candidates could.
Huntsman’s foreign policy and political history is likely to remain an issue in the campaign, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. But he doesn’t expect it will be a matter on which most voters base their choice.
“It’s not likely to be the kind of issue that voters would look at Jon Huntsman and say, ‘Oh, he left last time to be ambassador, therefore I would never ever vote for him,’” Burbank said. “When he was governor, he was a popular governor; he had high approval ratings.”
Still, the criticism does present a tricky line for the candidate to walk, he said, as every moment Huntsman spends defending his past means time taken from talking about the future.
“What he would like to do is talk about what he would do as governor," Burbank noted, “as opposed to what happened last time he was governor.”
Huntsman has also released ads that emphasize his Utah roots, from his pioneer heritage to his prominent philanthropic family.
Huntsman’s resume is unique among the four Republicans on the primary ballot. His opponents have no out-of-state political credentials and often point to their work in Utah as they make their case to voters.
Cox is a seventh-generation Utahn, who earned a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia before returning to Utah. He entered politics as a city councilman in Fairview and later was elected to the Utah House, a position he left midterm when Gov. Gary Herbert named him lieutenant governor in 2013.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright, who was also born and raised in Utah, points to his credentials in local party politics for more than 12 years.
Former House Speaker Greg Hughes was born in Pittsburgh. He spent 16 years serving in the Utah Legislature, a tenure that ended in 2018.
Two of Huntsman’s opponents — Wright and Hughes — say they don’t plan to make an issue of his previous midterm resignation, preferring to focus on their own policies and vision going forward.
“Our message will be about the times we’re in and what we’re seeing happening now and the kind of governor we need moving forward,” said Hughes, referencing the impacts of the coronavirus on the state in a recent interview. "I think that’s where our head is at now.”
In a statement, Wright thanked Huntsman and his family for their years of service and sacrifice to the state and the country but declined to comment further.
Instead, he sought to highlight his status as an outsider in the race, noting that his opponent “has had the opportunity to serve the state as governor, as have the other candidates in other high-ranking elected offices in Utah.”
“Rather than look to the past, the 2020 race for governor should be about the future, revving up the economy and getting Utahns back to work,” he added. "I have the experience of owning a business and the connection to the people from being outside of government.”
This is Wright’s first run for governor — as it is for Cox and Hughes.
For those three, showing voters they have what it takes to be governor is their priority. For Huntsman, who has done the job, his primary goal is to prove he deserves a chance to do it again.
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.