The day after he was declared the Republican nominee in Utah’s hotly-contested governor’s race, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox took a victory lap at the state Capitol on Tuesday, arguing that he had won the race against the odds.
Political experts told him he started campaigning too early when he announced his bid for the seat last May, he said. They said he wouldn’t go far with a “novice, 25-year-old campaign manager.” And some people told him he couldn’t win without resorting to negative attacks against his opponents.
“I’m so glad we were able to prove people wrong and actually succeed,” he told reporters in an outdoor news conference.
Cox credited his win to grassroots support and small donors as well as to his running mate, Spanish Fork Sen. Deidre Henderson, who he said buoyed his campaign during the state Republican Party Convention while he was tasked with responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were told that we couldn’t win at convention and we won anyway,” he said. “That was in large part because there was one decision I made that we received no criticism on and that was picking Sen. Deidre Henderson as my running mate.”
Cox’s primary contender in the race was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and the lieutenant governor described himself throughout the race as the little guy up against Huntsman’s wealth and prestigious surname. Still, Cox entered the running with his own set of advantages — including the air of incumbency that came from Gov. Gary Herbert’s backing and fundraising help and a leading role in the state’s coronavirus response that boosted his profile in the final months of the campaign.
Opinion polls throughout the race suggested a tight contest between the two but gave a slight lead to the lieutenant governor. The latest primary election tally shows him just 7,300 votes, or about one percentage point, ahead of Huntsman. Despite the narrow margin, the outcome was clear enough by Monday for The Associated Press to call the race in Cox’s favor.
The lieutenant governor was on the road home from a weekend getaway in Oregon when he learned he’d been declared winner of the primary race, he said. Cox said he celebrated his victory with some strangers from Utah at a gas station, while his family was inside buying snacks for the drive.
“So, not the best celebration in the world, but we’ll take it,” he said.
Cox said Tuesday that he hadn’t trusted those who forecast he wouldn’t win. And he says he’s also not putting too much stock now into the words of those who anticipate he’ll sail to the governor’s office in his November race against Democrat Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor.
“We are going to work very, very hard,” Cox promised on Tuesday.
A Democrat hasn’t won the governor’s office in 40 years.
Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah GOP, stood beside Cox on Tuesday and promised to support him in the months ahead. He described the lieutenant governor as a “thoughtful” and “contemplative” leader who “understands the big picture and yet understands how that big picture applies to the individual.”
In the coming months, Cox promised to focus on the “health and welfare of Utah citizens” as well as on education, which he has listed as one of his top priorities. His administration would work on “restoring the joy of teaching” as a way of retaining educators and strengthening the state’s public schools system, he said.
Cox also reiterated his support for increasing funding for police forces rather than defunding them, making the case that law enforcement agencies need more de-escalation training and resources.
He predicted that his campaign will win over many of the voters who backed Huntsman in the primary, saying he has much in common with the former ambassador. Cox also added that if he’s elected governor, he’ll be committed to representing all Utahns, regardless of political affiliation or beliefs.
Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.