In the close race for Utah governor between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman, the final outcome may come down to where in the state the tens of thousands of yet-uncounted ballots are from.
So far, Huntsman’s base of support has been in the state’s population center, Salt Lake County, which alone has delivered more than a third of his votes. Cox, on the other hand, has built his slim lead both on Wasatch Front counties and the more rural jurisdictions that he catered to during his John Deere-themed campaign.
Morgan Lyon Cotti, a University of Utah political science professor and associate director at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, noted that Huntsman’s 17,000-vote lead in Salt Lake County roughly canceled out Cox’s 17,000-vote edge in Utah County.
“So even though all of the other counties are going to be smaller,” she said, “you still have to have that statewide strategy.”
Political science experts say it’s no surprise that Huntsman, who’s perceived as a moderate, performed well in more progressive places, such as Salt Lake and Summit counties. It’s unclear yet how the large number of unaffiliated and Democratic voters who switched parties amid encouragement from the Huntsman campaign could play in his favor.
Though the primary race included four candidates, many seem to have viewed the contest as a showdown between Cox and Huntsman, said Matthew Burbank, another University of Utah political science professor. And Cox seems to have convinced bright red Utah County that he was the more conservative of the two, Burbank added.
“Cox was presenting himself as being from off the Wasatch Front and going to be a voice for rural Utah,” Burbank said. “In terms of positions, [Huntsman and Cox] are not all that different, but I think for some of them, they might have looked at Cox as somebody who might represent them.”
Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who placed third in the four-way primary, claimed a swath of southern Utah counties — where, experts say, voters likely resonated with his hard-line opposition to coronavirus restrictions and his allegiance to President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, Hughes conceded the race after early results showed him lagging Huntsman and Cox by more than 10 percentage points. Former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, who didn’t pull off a win in a single county, bowed out of the race Tuesday night after the first round of election results came in.
Their departure leaves standing only the contest’s two heavyweights, who are separated by a mere 10,900 votes as election officials prepare to tabulate a mountain of remaining ballots in coming weeks.
Utah election officials had estimated Wednesday that about 112,000 uncounted ballots were waiting in clerks offices. At least half those ballots were tallied up Thursday, although it’s unclear how many remain, with additional voting forms continuing to arrive by mail.
“Half of those are in Salt Lake County,” Lyon Cotti said. “So how those votes break could really determine who the winner is.”
Early on in the campaign, Cox pledged to visit all 248 cities and towns in the state as part of his run for governor — a feat he said no statewide candidate had ever before accomplished. And while his goal was temporarily impeded by the coronavirus, Cox announced late last month that his team had done just that.
It’s possible that strategy played well to rural voters who aren’t often courted by candidates. Cox picked up 14 of Utah’s 29 counties, from northwest Box Elder County to central Utah’s Juab County and tiny Daggett County in the eastern corner.
Cox and Huntsman both chose running mates from Utah County, in a nod to that jurisdiction’s significance in the primary contest. That was a recycled strategy for Huntsman, who won the governor’s mansion in 2004 with former Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert at his side.
But the move was more successful for Cox, who ran alongside Spanish Fork Sen. Deidre Henderson, than it was for Huntsman, who selected Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi as his second-in-command for this race.
Partial election results show Cox won Utah County by a margin of nearly 17,000 votes over Huntsman, or 45%.
Lyon Cotti, the University of Utah political scientist, said Cox had done “a lot of legwork and been able to drum up a lot of support” in Utah County throughout his campaign.
“Cox has done a lot of outreach to the communities surrounding Silicon Slopes,” she said. “He lives in nearby Sanpete County, and there seems to be a lot of crossover.”
Unsurprisingly, the Fairview resident also dominated in Sanpete County, where he grew up and has lived throughout his tenure as lieutenant governor, enduring a two-hour commute to and from the state Capitol each day in an effort to stay connected to his roots.
Cox held his election night party in Sanpete County at a drive-in movie theater located a few miles away from his family farm. Clusters of green and yellow balloons marked the turnoff for the theater, along with a sign that read “This is Cox country.”
With 4,600 votes, he received 67% of the total ballots cast there — more than six times as many as Huntsman brought in.
Huntsman an urban favorite
Huntsman won fewer counties than either Cox and Hughes did, but he remains a contender because he took home the most votes from some of the state’s populous areas: Salt Lake, Summit, Wasatch and Weber counties. He also won Carbon County.
Huntsman, who was well liked among Utahns when he was governor from 2005 to 2009, retains that popularity, particularly with moderate and more progressive voters.
When he was gathering signatures to earn his spot on the ballot, state election officials rejected more than 20,000 of his names, some of them because the signatory wasn’t a registered voter or wasn’t on file as a Republican. Part of his campaign strategy going into the primary, then, was to convert those and other unaffiliated and Democratic voters to the Republican Party to vote for him in the race.
Amid that push and similar conversion efforts from high-profile Democrats like former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, the Utah Republican Party gained more than 113,000 new active voters since the end of last year and nearly 54,000 last month alone.
In his conversations with voters who switched, Dabakis said “they were maybe two-thirds Huntsman people.”
But the liberal former lawmaker said Huntsman’s popularity among moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters probably hurt him more than it helped him in the race — particularly in less urban parts of the state. That’s why Dabakis never officially endorsed Huntsman, though he now acknowledges he was pulling for the candidate in his efforts to encourage party switching.
“They don’t want a Mitt Romney” in more conservative rural areas, Dabakis said, referencing the Utah senator who was the only member of his party to vote to impeach Trump. “They want a [Rep. Chris] Stewart.”
Cox may end up pulling off a win in part because he appealed to both rural Utahns and those in more urban areas in a way Huntsman couldn’t, Dabakis speculated.
“Cox did it by getting all those rural people, spending all that time, saying he’s one of them,” Dabakis said. “But he also has the sophistication that he was able to get enough of the city people.”
Southern Utah huge on Hughes
Though early vote totals put him third overall, Hughes did capture nine Utah counties, most of them in the southern part of the state.
Hughes picked as his running mate Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson and claimed that county with 38% of the vote. He also brought home Beaver, Duchesne, Iron, Kane, Piute, San Juan, Uintah and Wayne counties.
Jimi Kestin, chair of the Washington County GOP, said Hughes’ far-right positions likely appealed to many southern Utah voters.
“This is the red end of the red state,” he said, “and I’m not talking about the rocks.”
The presence of Iverson, a popular county commissioner, on the ticket also probably swayed some voters to Hughes’ side, Kestin said, as did the candidate’s many appearances in southern Utah.
The former Utah House speaker also tried to portray himself as the truest Trump supporter on the GOP ticket, targeting Cox in particular for his past statements critical of the president.
Kestin said Trump won over voters in the southern part of the state with his decision to downsize Bears Ears National Monument and many remain devoted to the president, whose support has eroded in general across Utah.
“The president showed some sensitivity to issues that are really important to rural Utah,” Kestin said. “In general, the president is very popular in this part of the state for his policies, and that … certainly didn’t hurt Speaker Hughes.”
Hughes’ firm stance against coronavirus mandates also mattered to people who live in areas where officials have fought mask-wearing rules — one Piute County commissioner recently compared Gov. Gary Herbert to Hitler for allowing such requirements — and clamored to lift restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, Burbank said.
The candidate reinforced this message with appearances at the Cedar City protest concert with country singer Collin Raye and by speaking at a recent Capitol Hill rally against reimposing social distancing measures to contain the current surge of COVID-19 cases.
Iverson, too, was strident in his objections to the state’s COVID-19 response, at one point messaging the governor’s senior staff to accuse Herbert and Cox of sitting idly by as the state’s economy goes up in flames.
But all of Hughes’ advantages didn’t translate into ultimate victory, with strong voter turnout in the high-interest contest possibly going against him, Burbank said. A primary that largely drew out party loyalists might’ve benefited Hughes, but Republican voters — including those who’d recently switched from another party — participated in potentially record-setting numbers Tuesday, he said.
“You’ve probably got a different-looking electorate in this election,” Burbank said, “than you might have four years ago or eight years ago.”
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.