Cox widens lead over Huntsman by about 600 votes but 112,000 ballots are still to be counted

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Gov. Jon Huntsman left, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, right, at their respective primary election events, June 30, 2020.

An updated primary vote tally released Wednesday afternoon has slightly expanded Spencer Cox’s lead over Jon Huntsman in the race for Utah governor.

The new count shows Cox pulling about 600 votes further ahead to attain a 11,700-vote lead on Huntsman. Cox has captured about 37% of the votes tallied so far, while Huntsman has about 34%.

The update posted around 3 p.m. included new results from jurisdictions including Salt Lake and Utah counties. However, there were no new numbers from a slew of other counties, with Davis and Weber being the largest.

Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman’s campaign manager, pointed out that the gap between the two front-runners didn’t change by much Wednesday and said “we’ll continue watching” as the results continue to roll in.

State elections officials Wednesday evening estimated that about 112,000 ballots — for which no party breakdown was available — remain uncounted, although they cautioned that this total could fluctuate as ballots continue to arrive by mail. In a departure from the norm, state officials in this primary are accepting ballots postmarked on election day.

Justin Lee, the state’s elections director, said Utah is on pace for a historic primary turnout, even with COVID-19 preventing in-person voting at polling places.

“With only about 1% of people actually going to a physical location on election day, that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “It really shows that vote by mail is pretty effective.”

Earlier in the day, former House Speaker Greg Hughes conceded the GOP race, leaving Cox and Huntsman the only candidates still in contention after Tuesday’s election. While some wondered if Hughes might carry off a surprise victory, he’s only garnered about 21% of the votes tabulated so far.

“Every day of this campaign was an adventure. Moments that were surreal, exciting and truly inspiring,” Hughes wrote Wednesday in a Facebook post that his campaign confirmed was a concession. “The competition was stiff, the bar was high and [Utahns] deserved a hard-fought race for their support. We delivered.”

Hughes, who served 15 years in the Legislature, his last four as speaker, was one of the early supporters of Donald Trump in 2016 and never wavered in that loyalty. He criticized rival candidates for being fair-weather Trump backers and for inviting Democrats and unaffiliated voters into the primary to defeat him.

Asked Tuesday night by a KUTV reporter if he would ever run again for public office, he said it was far too early to talk about such things. But, he added, “I’ll always be involved, I’m not going anywhere.”

Hughes supporters on Facebook were encouraging him to run for governor as an independent or to set his sights at challenging Sen. Mitt Romney in 2024.

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 primary 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.

Former state Republican Party chair Thomas Wright, who garnered 8% of the vote in the Wednesday totals, bowed out of the running Tuesday night. He told The Salt Lake Tribune that he would stand behind his party’s nominee in the November general election against Democrat Chris Peterson.

The standings remained unchanged Wednesday in the 4th Congressional District Republican primary, in which former NFL player Burgess Owens has already been declared the victor. He is poised to challenge Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in the general election.

Owens has landed about 43.6% of the vote, according to the updated tally, while state Rep. Kim Coleman remains at 23.9%. Jay “JayMac” McFarland, a former KSL NewsRadio host, is in third place with 21.6% of the vote, and venture capitalist Trent Christensen followed with 11%.

Coleman and McFarland conceded to Owens earlier Wednesday.

“All along, the No. 1 goal for all of us has been firing Ben McAdams, who misrepresents himself as a moderate while consistently supporting Nancy Pelosi and her far-left, ‘progressive’ agenda,” Coleman said in a statement. “The plurality of residents in CD4 believe Burgess Owens is the one to beat McAdams, and I now join my voice with theirs.”

Coleman also took the opportunity to bash the Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

“We believe that in nominating Burgess, Republican voters seek a repudiation of the recent widespread riots and violence under the deceptive label of ‘peaceful protests.’ Voters in Utah know we need to push back against the assault on American history and values by the now openly violent elements of Black Lives Matter and Antifa – and our voters decided Burgess is the one to carry that ball down the field.”

McFarland struck a far less strident tone, as he has throughout the campaign.

“My campaign has always been about bringing civility back to our civil discourse. As this race continues on towards the general, I encourage both Burgess and Ben to elevate their conversations and stay away from the personal attacks that have become all too common today,” he said in a statement.

Incumbent Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Wednesday retained a healthy lead over his Republican challenger, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. Reyes claimed 54% support in the updated tally, with Leavitt at 46%.

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