Despite campaign attacks over Utah’s COVID-19 response, poll shows voters are pleased

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks at a news conference in the state's Emergency Operations Center, March 12, 2020, addressing the current state of COVID-19 in Utah. Representatives from the Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah Board of Education, Utah Jazz, local health authorities and Utah Department of Health were also present.

A new poll suggests that Utah Republicans resoundingly support the way the state’s leaders have handled the coronavirus pandemic so far, impressions that could bleed into their opinions about the governor’s race.

The stakes are particularly high for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s occupied a place at the forefront of the state’s crisis response even as he’s juggling his gubernatorial campaign. His performance in this high-profile role has been repeatedly targeted by his GOP primary opponents — who have tried to poke holes in the state’s approach to COVID-19 and are accusing Gov. Gary Herbert of injecting politics into an emergency by putting Cox in the limelight.

But the recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University suggests these critiques aren’t catching on among most prospective primary voters. In the poll, about 79% of likely Republican voters said they either strongly or somewhat approve of Utah’s response to the pandemic.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Cox said during a Tuesday evening debate that Utahns should be proud of how they’ve banded together to protect public health and the economy from the pandemic’s assault. Not only does the state enjoy some of the nation’s lowest mortality rates, he noted, but it also has among the lowest unemployment rates.

And after taking hits from all three of his opponents over the state’s reaction to COVID-19, the lieutenant governor also defended his own performance.

“I can only imagine how I would have been attacked if I wasn’t doing my job,” he said. “The response was not perfect. But under the circumstances, I would put that response up against any other state in this nation and against any other country in this world.”

The positive reviews for the state’s COVID-19 management could be good news for Cox’s campaign, said Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. Cox might also get a boost from ongoing anxieties about the pandemic, which could push voters toward familiar faces such as the lieutenant governor or his opponent, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Brown added.

“The fact that the vast majority are satisfied with the response would seem to play in favor of Spencer Cox, who has had a key role in the response,” he said. “To the extent people are worried and afraid, that’s going to draw people toward experience, and that could mean the lieutenant governor, or it could mean the former governor.”

The pollsters conducted the survey over cellphones and landlines from June 4 to 7. They included responses from registered Republicans, as well as voters who said they planned to change their affiliation to participate in the GOP primary.

And while the 500 respondents gave great reviews to the state’s response, they were less enthused with the federal government’s approach, with 58% registering their approval.

Early on the pandemic, Herbert named Cox, his chosen successor, to lead the state’s COVID-19 task force, and, for a period of time, the lieutenant governor was helping lead news conferences about the disease’s spread in Utah. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, one of Cox’s rivals in the race, has blasted Herbert’s decision to name an active candidate to the high-profile position, saying it was an unnecessary distraction during a moment of crisis. And he’s criticized Cox for basking in the positive press without standing accountable for any missteps in the COVID-19 response.

“The only thing I understand about Spencer Cox’s role is that he’s the chairman of the task force and in the months of March and April, it was his voice and his words that were leading the state’s response,” Hughes said. “I did not see a leadership role from him answering the harder questions that have come up.”

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who’s endorsed Cox for governor, agreed that the lieutenant governor’s leadership role has been politicized but not because he or Herbert did anything improper.

“He’s the lieutenant governor. He’s headed up tough tasks in the past. ... Why wouldn’t you have somebody that you trust and who’s right there by your side head those things up?” Vickers, R-Cedar City, said. “In a campaign, especially one that’s high profile like the governor’s race, somebody is going to try to politicize everything you do.”

It’s not entirely clear how much influence the Cox-led task force has had in the state’s war on COVID-19. State Rep. Paul Ray, a member of the group, said the task force has offered input to Utah leaders but hasn’t had direct authority over policies and actions and largely receives briefings on decisions that have already been made.

Asked who’s setting the state’s course during the pandemic, the Clearfield Republican said: “The honest answer is, I can’t tell you. I think a lot of that went on behind the scenes.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

During recent debates, Cox’s three primary opponents have ganged up on him several times over what they argue is a lack of transparency during the pandemic. On Tuesday, they took aim at the state’s spending on no-bid contracts and supply orders during the early weeks of the outbreak.

The lieutenant governor has argued those purchasing shortcuts were necessary to cope with the urgent need for protective gear and intense international competition over medical equipment. And, he said, all the contracts and purchase orders are open to inspection.

“Every dime that we spend is public,” he said.

Hughes has also leveled criticism at the state’s decision to impose what he believes were draconian social distancing restrictions that caused economic damage. Though Utah was one of only seven states that didn’t have a statewide shutdown to stem the spread of the virus, Herbert did put a temporary stop to dining in at Utah’s restaurants and bars.

The Tribune’s poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, found that likely Republican voters are largely pleased with the state’s social distancing precautions. About 63% of the survey respondents expressed approval for the business restrictions put in place by the state and more than 73% liked the way the state has gradually eased those limitations.

Norman Stevens, a 60-year-old Riverton resident who participated in the poll, praised the way state leaders have confronted the pandemic, even though the closures have cost him dearly.

“They wanted to help people out and make sure they don’t get too many infections,” Stevens said. “But you can go too far, and I think Utah did the right thing.”

Stevens said he’s experienced both sides of that equation. His business, which outfits restaurants with kitchen equipment, took a hard hit when the COVID-19 restrictions virtually closed eateries across the state. But he also watched his younger brother battle a severe case of the coronavirus and takes the disease seriously.

“It affected him dramatically and hurt him bad,” he said, “so I personally wear a mask almost everywhere I go.”

But Cox’s good work navigating the pandemic wasn’t enough to win Stevens’ vote in the upcoming primary; he says he’s backing Hughes.

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