Do Utah voters care about a candidate’s loyalty to President Donald Trump?

(Ivy Ceballo | Deseret News, pool photo) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former House Speaker Greg Hughes bump elbows following a debate in the Utah governor's race at the PBS Utah studio at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, June 1, 2020.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary election for Utah governor, former House Speaker Greg Hughes is questioning Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s support for the president, going so far as to accuse his opponent of being a “never Trumper.”

The criticisms, which Hughes has devoted a page to on his campaign website, center around a series of old tweets from Cox, who has expressed support for President Donald Trump’s reelection but was an ardent detractor of his on social media during the 2016 campaign.

“Can’t tell you how liberating it is to not support Trump,” Cox wrote in one tweet from that year. “@MittRomney was right-really is easier to sleep at night.”

“A fun game is to think of people you WOULDN’T prefer as POTUS over Hillary/Trump,” he said in another tweet, which has since been deleted. “Maybe the Kardashians, Bieber… some serial killers…?”

When his Twitter followers would ask Cox whom he was voting for, he responded with the same promise: “Not Trump.”

Cox — along with the rest of the GOP gubernatorial candidates, including former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman — has now offered his support for Trump’s reelection bid and has steered away from saying anything negative about him.

“His style of politics is not the Utah Republican style of politics,” Cox said at a debate earlier this year. “We just have to understand and accept that.”

But Hughes, who campaigned for the president in 2016, is using his opponent’s past criticisms of the president as a way to differentiate himself to voters as the only “true” conservative in the race and an opportunity to undermine Cox, who polls show is one of the front-runners, as inauthentic.

“Spencer Cox said that Donald Trump represents the worst of what this country stands for,” Hughes says in a video posted to his campaign website. “[He] attacked our president for defending our national anthem and even called Trump supporters uneducated. He now says he supports the president, but he can’t keep up that lie.”

“We don’t need a never Trumper leading Utah,” he concludes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes uses a bullhorn to rally supporters of President Donald Trump as two competing demonstations spar near U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams' office in West Jordan. One group was there to support Utah's only Democrat in Congress and one to criticize him for supporting the impeachment inquiry of Trump, Oct. 9, 2019.

Cox declined an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune for this story but addressed the criticism from Hughes in a statement.

“As a farmer from rural Utah, I was skeptical that a former Democrat from New York would care about Utah and our way of life,” he said. “You don’t need to ask my opponents how I feel about the president. Just look at our track record. No state in America has a better working relationship with President Trump than Utah. As governor, I will ensure that we continue to work together to deliver for our state.”

Hughes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘Ambiguous feelings’

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said he was surprised by Hughes’ tactics at first, given the president’s history of lukewarm support in the state. But with four candidates fighting for votes in what could be a close primary race, Burbank sees Hughes’ strategy as a way to consolidate conservative support.

“If what we see from Cox and Huntsman is they really do end up splitting that moderate vote — and at least from polls it looks like that may be exactly what goes on — Hughes may have a big enough base of reliable supporters to be able to eke out a win here,” he said.

A recent poll of likely Republican primary voters conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University found Cox leading with 32%, followed closely by Huntsman at 30% and Hughes trailing behind at 14%.

That same poll found these voters were big fans of Trump, with two-thirds saying they somewhat or strongly approve of the job he’s doing in the White House and about 30% saying they disapproved of his performance. Romney, who has sparred with the president and was the only Republican who voted to remove him from office for abuse of power in the impeachment trial, didn’t fare quite so well.

Still, Republican Jan Garbett, a Trump-skeptic gubernatorial candidate who ultimately did not earn enough signatures to get on the June ballot, said she doesn’t forecast die-hard support for the president making or breaking a Republican candidate Tuesday.

“There are a lot more level-headed voters in Utah and Republican voters that are pragmatic and don’t fall for the hype around Donald Trump,” she said. “From my polling, I actually saw that amongst the Republican voters and with people realizing they can cross over and vote in the Republican Party.”

Burbank agreed, noting that Cox’s past criticisms of the president didn’t seem to hurt him in the convention, where he won the support of Republican delegates with Hughes in second place.

“There is a big chunk of Republican primary voters that in all honesty sort of look at Cox and they have the same kind of ambiguous feelings [as he does] about Donald Trump as president,” Burbank said. He said he doesn’t believe voters are adamant that “you have to be with the president; you have to be consistent.”

But, as Garbett weighs her own vote, she said she’s suspicious of candidates who haven’t been consistent in their views on a president she sees as divisive and lacking ethics.

“To have people go back and forth, I ask myself what am I supposed to believe in them?” said Garbett, whose family business has supported Hughes’ campaign as one of his top donors. “Are they just being political and appeasing a party, or are they going to stand up and do some leadership in the party? When they vacillate, that actually makes me a little more concerned about what can I trust that leader to do.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and former House Speaker Greg Hughes participate in a Utah Republican primary debate in Salt Lake City, June 16, 2020. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had been infected with the coronavirus, participated over a monitor.

Criticisms and compliments

Cox is hardly the only candidate in Utah’s gubernatorial race who has dished out criticism for Trump, a president who has long eschewed convention and has fundamentally reshaped the White House and the Republican Party in the process.

Huntsman (who endorsed Trump in the 2016 election despite what he called “fundamental philosophical differences” between the two men) called on the candidate to step out of the race upon the release of an “Access Hollywood” video that showed Trump bragging about groping and kissing women.

“In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom — at such a critical moment for our nation — and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Governor [Mike] Pence to lead the ticket,” Huntsman told The Tribune at the time.

Hughes, who supported Marco Rubio’s campaign early on in the cycle before throwing his support behind Trump, was also critical of the candidate after that video was released. He described his emotions as ranging from “shock and bewilderment to anger and disgust.”

“To say I am disappointed would be a gross understatement,” he said, calling for a “sincere apology and an accounting for these statements.”

Many Republicans in Utah and beyond have been critical of the president, Burbank noted. But for the gubernatorial hopefuls who have been, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d have a bad relationship with Trump in the future, if he’s reelected.

“I don’t think there is anything ... that says if somehow you end up criticizing the president, that means your state’s not going to get any money or bad things are going to happen,” he said, noting that Trump has forged close relationships with people who were once detractors.

Huntsman, for example, called on Trump to step down but later accepted a position in Trump’s administration as ambassador to Russia, a role he only recently left to come back to Utah and run again for governor.

(Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, pool photo) In this file photo from June 1, 2020, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, speaks during a Republican primary debate in Salt Lake City. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Donald Trump to return to Utah and make a run at reclaiming his seat.

During a gubernatorial debate early this year, Huntsman acknowledged his disagreements with Trump but said he would back the president as the Republican Party’s nominee and praised him for creating an “economic dynamo for this country.”

And in his video to party delegates in the convention, Huntsman expressed even stronger support for Trump.

“He is going to be our president for another four years,” he said. “We forged a strong and respectful relationship and I know the state will need it. He has my full support.”

The Huntsman campaign declined to comment for this story, citing the family’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus. Huntsman was cleared to campaign on Monday.

Wright, the former GOP chair, noted in an interview that he was an initial supporter of the president’s, seeing early on the “energy and enthusiasm” the party had for an outsider and newcomer.

The gubernatorial hopeful has also never held elected office and has tried to leverage that quality as a point of connection with the real estate mogul-turned-president.

“The president has proven what a businessman can do when elected over politicians; we know it works,” Wright said in his video presentation to party delegates earlier this year.

Understanding where the candidates are on Trump is a “relevant topic in our primary,” he said. But Wright declined to get into a back-and-forth on how Trump’s racist and sexist rhetoric play into his assessment of the president.

“I’m here to talk about my words and my tone,” he said. “I want to be part of the solution. I think we have a really unique opportunity in this country right now to have a serious conversation about a lot of difficult issues that people have been uncomfortable talking about. It’s a moment we need to seize and we need to capture and we need to own, and I want to do that as governor.”

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