Sen. Mike Lee criticizes Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox over reported election antics

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

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee is criticizing Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for reportedly trying to cut a deal to get Thomas Wright to drop out out of the race for governor, support Herbert’s favorite hopeful, and run against Lee instead in two years.

“These tactics should not take root in our state, especially from within the governor’s office,” Lee said in a Facebook post Tuesday night after watching the governor’s debate.

Lee is backing former Gov. Jon Huntsman in the four-way Republican primary race between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Huntsman, Wright and former House Speaker Greg Hughes.

Herbert has acknowledged he met with Wright, former Utah Republican Party chairman, to discuss him withdrawing his bid for the governor’s office and supporting Cox, whom Herbert has endorsed. Herbert didn’t deny encouraging Wright to run against Lee but has insisted there was no inducement and that “there’s no deal been made.”

Wright has confirmed the essential allegations although he said he viewed the conversation as “strong encouragement” from the governor to get out of the race — not as an inducement that would run afoul of state law. He remains in the race.

Governor Herbert has never called me to deny having suggested that Thomas drop out to run against me,” Lee wrote on Facebook.

During Tuesday night’s debate, hosted by KUTV and the Pioneer Park Coalition, moderators pressed Wright for information about his meeting with Herbert.

Wright, who has trailed his rivals in the polls, has repeatedly said — and reiterated Tuesday — that he has no intention of leaving the race and looks forward to competing until the end.

Asked if the governor’s actions were inappropriate, Wright said, “I would not get involved in a Republican primary. I wouldn’t try to influence the outcome. ... But the governor did decide to do that.”

Lee wrote that “Thomas Wright should never have been put into this situation and has handled it well,” he said. And he questioned “Why Spencer Cox hasn’t publicly disavowed this heavy-handed approach?”

The senator’s office declined Wednesday to comment further on the post.

Cox’s campaign did not immediately return a request for comment and neither did Herbert’s office. Previously, Cox declined to comment, saying he considered it a “private conversation between those two men.”

— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.