Gov. Gary Herbert confirms he asked Thomas Wright to drop out of Utah governor’s race

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert, right, is joined by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as they speak at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, March 13, 2020. Herbert has confirmed that he asked Thomas Wright to drop out of the governor's race and support Cox, but he denied that he offered any inducement for that move. Wright remains in the race going into the June 30 GOP primary.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert confirmed reports that he met recently over milkshakes with gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright and encouraged him to step out of the race to support the outgoing governor’s chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

But asked whether he had attempted to induce Wright to drop out or if he had broken any state laws in the process, Herbert said the answer was “no and no.”

“There’s no deal been made,” he added later.

Four sources who were told about the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told The Salt Lake Tribune that Herbert encouraged Wright to run against Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 when he’s next up for reelection and that he promised to round up political and financial support if Wright did.

That allegation led the United Utah Party to call Friday for the Utah Attorney General’s Office to open an investigation into the incident to determine whether Herbert had offered Wright an “inducement” to drop out of the race.

If he did, that could violate Utah Code 20A-9-204, which makes it a class B misdemeanor for anyone to “promise to pay or reward another in any manner or form for the purpose of inducing that person to be, or to refrain from or cease being a candidate.”

“If Governor Herbert did so, that would be a violation of law and should be prosecuted,” the United Utah Party said in a news release on Friday.

A spokesman in the governor’s office said he could not comment on any pending complaints or litigation but reiterated Herbert’s comments that no deal had been made between him and Wright.

In addressing the incident on Thursday, Herbert said their meeting, first reported by Utah Policy earlier this week, came as the field for governor has narrowed over the last few weeks and amid polling that shows Wright in the bottom among the four candidates.

His goal, Herbert said, was to understand what Wright’s “evaluation was and what his plans were going forward” related to his campaign.

“And I suggested to him, as I suggested last year, maybe you ought to consider supporting Spencer Cox for governor,” Herbert recounted during a news conference Thursday. “We’ve seen that this year with the presidential campaign, it’s not an untypical thing as the field gets narrowed and winnowed and people start endorsing others that have maybe a better chance of winning.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, Real-estate executive Thomas Wright speaks during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race, in Salt Lake City.

Herbert said the pair talked about that possibility and that Wright was “attentive” but uninterested in dropping out and throwing his support behind Cox.

“At the end of the day, [Wright] said, ‘Well, I think I know that I’m a long shot but I want to stay the course and continue on this journey,’” Herbert continued.

Wright confirmed Friday in an interview with The Tribune that Herbert mentioned Lee’s seat during their meeting, as well as several other political opportunities Wright could run for — including the Senate seat held by Mitt Romney and potential congressional openings.

The gubernatorial candidate said he viewed their conversation as “strong encouragement” to get out of the race — not as an inducement that would run afoul of state law.

And he reiterated that he was never interested in leaving the race to seek another office.

“I have never considered dropping out of this race and still intend to be our state’s next governor,” he said. “The internal polling numbers of my campaign show that there is a path to victory. It is time for a new leader in Utah and not the same professional politicians.”

Wright’s campaign released internal numbers Friday that showed him with 25% of the vote in a survey of 909 likely Republican primary voters, a number that would indicate a close contest between him, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 28% and Cox at 31%.

Other polling, though, has consistently shown Wright’s numbers to be much lower. A recent Utah Policy survey, for example, showed him at 6% — far behind Cox, Huntsman and former House Speaker Greg Hughes.

The Cox campaign has so far declined to comment on the meeting between Herbert and Wright and did so again Friday, noting that it constituted a “private conversation between those two men.”

“We will leave that between them,” campaign spokesman Heather Barney told The Tribune.

Michael Jolley, a former staffer in Lee’s office, said it doesn’t sound like Herbert made an explicit offer to promote Wright in a Senate race if he agreed to drop out of the gubernatorial contest.

But Jolley said the conversation is still unusual, given Herbert's status, especially if the sitting Republican governor encouraged Wright to challenge an incumbent senator of the same party.

"He's the current governor," Jolley said. "There's a lot more power behind those discussions."

A spokesman for Lee’s office declined to comment on the reported discussions between Herbert and Wright.

While the imbroglio with Herbert has raised some awkward questions for Wright, the candidate said he ultimately thinks the situation will have a positive impact on his campaign.

“I believe it’s time with a new leader with a new vision who can move Utah into a new future,” he said. "When we have the same people passing the baton of power back and forth to each other, it’s not healthy, it’s not productive and it isn’t good for everyday citizens.”

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report

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