Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has slim lead over former Gov. Jon Huntsman in early election results for Utah governor’s race

Early election results in Utah’s closely watched race for governor show a close contest between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

On election night, partial statewide ballot results showed Cox with 37% of the vote to Huntsman’s 34%. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes trailed behind at 21%, while former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright brought in about 8%.

Changes to this year’s primary election in light of the COVID-19 outbreak mean it may take some time to determine a winner in the four-person race, however. It’s unclear how many outstanding ballots are yet to be counted, and election results won’t be final until the official canvass is complete in three weeks.

As the results posted, a chorus of honks sounded from the cars of Cox’s supporters at the Sanpete County drive-in movie theater where he held his election night party.

“Tonight the people of Utah have spoken,” he told supporters after the ballots dropped, his image projected on the theater’s big screen. “We recognize that it’s still pretty close ... so we know it’s too early to celebrate, it’s too early to call, but we feel really good about where we are right now.”

Huntsman, speaking with reporters shortly after the results posted on Tuesday, said they looked “terrific” for his campaign and predicted his vote total would go up with the final tally.

“The election is playing out — the most beautiful thing we have in our political system, when each voice matters,” he said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jon Huntsman reacts after seeing the first results in the GOP primary race for governor at his headquarters, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Huntsman took a big lead in Salt Lake County, the most populous, but Cox took two of the other three largest counties in Utah and Davis. Overall, Cox was ahead in 14 counties, including a dramatic lead in his home county of Sanpete. Huntsman led in six; and Hughes in nine, mostly rural counties plus Washington County.

Hughes, addressing the media from a supporter’s home in Centerville, said he wasn’t happy with the initial results of the election but said they don’t mean the race is over.

“We knew all along that we are peaking at the right time so the earliest numbers coming in would be our slowest momentum,” he said. “So as the numbers come in, we’re going to see that climb. It’s a bit of a steep climb.”

Cox and his wife greeted cars as they streamed into the Mt. Pleasant movie theater, joined at one point by outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert, who said showing up was the least he could do after his lieutenant governor had given him six years of support.

Herbert said his right-hand man has “earned the right to serve” as governor.

”He certainly has the capability and the talent,” Herbert said. “He has the experience and the know-how and could hit the ground running.”

The governor predicted a close finish between Cox and Huntsman, in whose administration he served as lieutenant governor.

”It’s going to be a horse race,” he said, adding that he has great respect for Huntsman, even though he gave his endorsement to Cox.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People line up for one of twelve drive-up voting assistance centers in Salt Lake County, Utah, at the Northwest Recreation Center on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, as workers go to cars to help people get ballots to replace lost ones or help unaffiliated voters register Republican to be able to vote in the primary.

Regardless of the results, Hughes said he’s proud and he encouraged the group of supporters to celebrate and not remain quiet.

Wright told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that he was conceding in the race and promised to do anything he could to help whoever officially wins the primary secure the election come November.

“I added a lot to this race,” he said. “I challenged the status quo. I brought up new ideas for public education, for air quality and for the affordable housing crisis. I think my ideas will shape future policy. I think what I’ve learned is being involved is important. It’s a grind. It’s grueling, but it’s so worth it. I’d encourage anyone who’s thinking about it to throw their hat in the ring and give it a shot.”

In the deep red Beehive State, many expect the four-way GOP primary contest will decide the successor to Gov. Gary Herbert, who has held office longer than any other currently sitting governor in America.

Herbert’s decision not to seek reelection created a rare open seat that lured eight Republican hopefuls into the primary contest. By primary election day, only four remained standing — candidates who have collectively spent months and more than $6.5 million in pursuit of victory.

The winner will face Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, in November. But Utah’s minority party hasn’t elected a governor in four decades — the last was Scott Matheson, who won a second term in 1980.

Political onlookers predicted the contest would be a showdown between Cox and Huntsman, a charismatic lieutenant governor from rural Sanpete County and a seasoned statesman who offered to connect Utah to the world. That forecast was borne out in public opinion polling, with Huntsman and Cox swapping first and second places at various points in the race.

From the start of their rivalry, Cox has portrayed the matchup as the biblical David vs. Goliath fight, describing himself as the little guy up against Huntsman's wealth and prestigious surname.

And the former governor's family riches did serve him well. During the waning days of the primary race, when Huntsman had nearly exhausted his funds, his mother replenished his bank account by writing a $350,000 check, campaign finance records show.

Still, Cox entered the running with his own set of advantages, including the air of incumbency that came from Herbert's backing and fundraising help.

The latest surveys suggested a tight contest between Cox and Huntsman but gave a slight lead to the lieutenant governor.

As the race wore on, Hughes also worked his way up in the polls as he cast himself as the true conservative option, in contrast to the more moderate Huntsman and Cox. He succeeded with the GOP faithful, who picked him and Cox as their two favorite gubernatorial candidates during the party’s nominating convention.

Wright, on the other hand, never seemed able to budge out of his fourth-place standing in the polls, despite branding himself as a political outsider who would bring a fresh perspective to the state Capitol.

But the coronavirus pandemic shaped the race almost as much as the candidates themselves and, in certain cases, amplified aspects of their personalities.

Hughes railed against government restrictions and even moved his election night party out of Salt Lake County to avoid its mask-wearing mandate. Cox and Huntsman both emphasized their abilities to lead through a crisis, as the lieutenant governor helped direct the state’s COVID-19 response and the former governor pitched his vision for a flourishing economy coming out of the public health emergency.

The disease also took a personal toll on Huntsman, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and had to leave the campaign trail to quarantine. His wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, and multiple campaign staffers also fell ill from the virus.

During the primary contest, Cox has played up his roots in Fairview, the roughly 1,350-person town where his family has lived for seven generations. Rather than leave his Sanpete County farm, Cox has made a daily commute of about two hours to and from the state Capitol, a fact he highlighted in the video announcing his bid for governor.

Cox, 44, served as a city councilman, mayor and county commissioner before winning election to the Utah House. Cox was still a freshman state representative in 2013 when Herbert plucked him from relative obscurity to serve as his second-in-command.

When he decided he wouldn’t try for reelection, Herbert nudged his protégé to run and ultimately endorsed Cox, even though Herbert had served as lieutenant governor under Huntsman.

The candidate, who chose state Sen. Deidre Henderson as his running mate, has branded himself throughout the race as a more compassionate conservative, and many have put him in the moderate category alongside Huntsman, his chief rival. The lieutenant governor has sought to differentiate himself by labeling himself “Utah’s homegrown candidate” and appearing to question former ambassador Huntsman’s commitment to the state.

Huntsman served as governor from 2005 to 2009, when he resigned a few months into his second term to become then-President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. In between then and his current race for governor, Huntsman ran for president, led a foreign policy think tank and served as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia.

Throughout the race, the candidate has touted his vast political experience as a boon to the state, promising to think big and lift the state out of the coronavirus pandemic to new heights if he’s elected again.

But his opponents have sought to use his experience against him, particularly making an issue of his decision to leave the state to work in the Obama administration and worrying that he may use the governor’s office to wait for his next high-profile national or international opportunity.

Huntsman, 60, has promised that he’s here to stay and that he would complete a full term, if elected in November. He picked Provo’s first female mayor, Michelle Kaufusi, as his running mate.

Ahead of what was forecasted as a close race between him and Cox, the Huntsman campaign has encouraged party switching, with polling showing the former governor had an edge among unaffiliated and Democratic voters. The Utah Republican Party has gained more than 113,000 new active voters since the end of last year and nearly 54,000 this month alone, and political scientists had speculated those voters could tip the scale in his favor.

The next vote totals will be released 3 p.m. Wednesday.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporters Libby Seline and Connor Sanders contributed to this report

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