Spencer Cox wins Republican primary race for Utah governor over Jon Huntsman

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox greets supporters arriving to an election night event in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. The AP called the GOP primary race for Cox over Jon Huntsman on Monday after days of ballot counting.

Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, a Fairview farmer with a brand as a compassionate conservative, has bested Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who was seeking a third term, in the closely watched Republican primary race for Utah governor.

The Associated Press called the race in Cox’s favor shortly after 4 p.m. Monday.

Cox said in a statement that he and his running mate, Spanish Fork state Sen. Deidre Henderson, were “humbled by the vote of confidence from the people of Utah in selecting us as the Republican nominees for governor and lieutenant governor.”

“As farm kids from Sanpete County, [wife] Abby and I never dreamed of having this opportunity,” he continued. “If elected in November, we will take our rural values of hard work, honesty, and responsibility to the governor’s office each day.”

Cox said on Twitter that Huntsman had called to concede in the race Monday afternoon.

In a statement released later that day, the former Utah governor said that he would “accept the will of the people, as is our tradition as Americans.”

“The visions put forward for Utah were very different, and regret that I will not be leading the efforts in moving us towards a new horizon,” Huntsman added. “This was anything but a typical campaign season, with the COVID-19 pandemic making impossible our ability to meet face-to-face with more of the people in communities across our state. However, I am heartened by the record voter turnout we saw in this primary election and I hope every eligible voter will exercise this most sacred right in November.”

Huntsman didn’t indicate what would come next for him but said that public service is “in our blood” and that he would continue to find a way to “contribute to the good of our community.”

The primary victory for Cox gives him a huge advantage going into the November election to decide the successor to Gov. Gary Herbert, who has held office longer than any other currently sitting governor in America.

Cox will face Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, in the contest for a seat Democrats haven’t won in 40 years.

Throughout his time in public office, Cox has served at nearly every level of local government, from city council to mayor and county commissioner before winning election to the Utah House. He was still a freshman state representative in 2013, when Herbert plucked him from relative obscurity to serve as his second-in-command.

His resume was in stark contrast to Huntsman who, twice elected as governor, had served different administrations as U.S. ambassador to Russia, China and Singapore. He also tried his hand at presidential politics in a short-lived run for the 2012 GOP nomination. The Huntsman name has been revered because of the chemical business, cancer foundation and numerous philanthropic efforts established by the candidate’s late father, Jon Huntsman Sr.

Throughout the race, Cox has portrayed the matchup between him and Huntsman as the biblical David vs. Goliath fight, describing himself as the little guy up against the former Utah governor’s wealth and prestigious surname. Public opinion polling showed Huntsman and Cox swapping first and second places at various points in the race.

Cox ultimately built his lead with both Wasatch Front counties and the more rural jurisdictions that he catered to during his John Deere-themed campaign, while Huntsman was more popular in the state’s urban population centers.

Cox visited 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. He also won the nomination at the state Republican Party Convention and was the first candidate to gather the 28,000 signatures needed to earn a spot on the primary election ballot.

While Huntsman was popular as governor during his previous service and among more moderate and progressive party switchers in this primary election, those voters ultimately didn’t offer enough momentum to defend against Cox’s statewide strategy.

He also had to fend off criticisms from his opponents, who have made an issue of his decision to leave the state to work in the Obama administration and worried that he may use the governor’s office to wait for his next high-profile national or international opportunity. Huntsman assured he had no desire or intention to take another federal post.

New vote totals released Monday showed Cox’s lead over Huntsman diminished slightly, with the two candidates currently separated by a little more than 9,100 votes. On Thursday, that gap was about 1,800 votes bigger, with Cox leading by a margin of 10,900 votes.

The updated results added 27,700 more ballots to the overall totals in the GOP primary and included results from Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake, Sanpete, Tooele, Utah and Weber counties. Cox has brought in 36% of the vote to Huntsman’s 35%.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, both of whom have conceded defeat, have respectively captured 21% and 8% of the current count.

State officials estimated last week that as many as 112,000 ballots remained to be counted but weren’t able to give a party breakdown. About 83,000 ballots in the governor’s race have been tallied since that time. But with the possibility that ballots could arrive by mail after the state gave that estimate, it’s unclear how many are still uncounted, state elections director Justin Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday.

With changes state lawmakers made to this year’s primary election in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, including extending the canvassing period, election results won’t be final until that official count is completed in three weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped the race almost as much as the candidates themselves, taking the gubernatorial hopefuls off the campaign trail and moving forums and debates into a virtual space and at the same time requiring the candidates to outline a vision for addressing the myriad new challenges facing the state.

Cox, who helped direct the state’s response, likely benefited from a surge in exposure as a result of that position. But he also faced criticism from his opponents, who accused Herbert of “politicizing” the virus by placing him in charge.

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 in the final weeks of the election to quarantine. His wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, and multiple campaign staffers also fell ill from the virus.

Cox, in a statement Monday, said the next four years will be “critically important to Utah’s future.”

“We must rebuild our economy, restore the joy of teaching for our educators, and bring new opportunities for smart growth to both the Wasatch Front and rural Utah,” he said. “Most importantly, we believe the results of this election prove that negative campaigns do not work in Utah. We feel blessed to live in the greatest state in America and invite all Utahns to join us in ensuring it always remains that way.”

Peterson, the Democratic nominee, said in a statement Monday that he and running mate Karina Brown plan to run a positive campaign “focused on the issues facing Utahns in their daily lives.”

“With unprecedented unemployment, a mismanaged pandemic response, underfunded public schools, and a crisis in moral leadership in Washington,” he said, “more and more Utahns believe it is time for change.”

Peterson said he will work, if elected, “for fair taxes, [to] respect ballot measure results, and build a business-friendly economy that treats all Utahns with dignity.”

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

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