Jon Huntsman says he won’t run as write-in candidate after GOP primary loss

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jon Huntsman is interviewed after seeing the first returns in the GOP primary race for governor at his headquarters in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Jon Huntsman says he will not be running a write-in campaign for governor, even with an independent group of staunch supporters striving to keep him in contention following his narrow primary loss.

“While we appreciate the continued enthusiasm from supporters throughout the state, especially after a very tight race, we won’t be pursuing any efforts for a write-in campaign,” the former Utah governor said in a prepared statement Monday.

His comment comes in response to rumors that he might be considering such a last-ditch move and a report citing unnamed sources in Utah Policy and a Deseret News report about a pro-Huntsman group that’s building a case for it.

The informal group of Huntsman backers say they’re disheartened that the four Republican rivals split the primary vote and that the victor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has captured the party’s nomination without majority support. The latest count has Cox at 36% of the vote and Huntsman just behind, with about 35%.

“The primary process didn’t present what we believe will be the strongest candidate going forward,” said Alecia Williams, a spokesperson for the group that’s lobbying for a Huntsman write-in bid. “We’re pushing this not because it’s sour grapes but because we believe he’s the right candidate.”

She declined to identify the people who are involved with the group, saying many of them were active in Huntsman’s primary campaign and are worried about the perception that the candidate or his family are orchestrating the effort.

Williams, who worked briefly as a Huntsman campaign adviser during the primary, said the group of supporters hasn’t yet been in contact with the former governor or his family about the write-in idea. They plan to make their pitch to him in the next week or so, she said.

The group has reviewed findings from a recent poll paid for by another Huntsman supporter, who also wants to remain anonymous, according to Williams. The survey bolstered their confidence that a write-in campaign would be viable, she added.

“It just confirmed everything our gut is telling us,” she said.

Their plan would pit Huntsman against Cox, the GOP nominee, and Democrat Chris Peterson in November’s general election.

Williams said those frustrated by the primary results also want to see changes to the state’s laws so that a candidate can’t claim victory with a plurality vote. Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former state Republican Party chairman Thomas Wright together bagged about 29% of the votes tallied so far, leaving no candidate with a solid majority, she noted.

Cox’s campaign declined to comment on the write-in talk and referred a reporter to Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown.

In a Monday interview, Brown said the GOP has coalesced around Cox, its nominee, but he praised Huntsman as a “classy and diplomatic” candidate throughout the primary contest. And he doesn’t believe the buzz about a write-in effort will amount to anything.

“It sounds like an absolute nonissue at this point when the candidate himself has made it very clear that it’s not going to happen,” Brown said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s put the lid on that issue.”

The party chairman said he does agree with Williams that the state’s current election system is problematic, since it’s possible for candidates to win an election with only a fraction of the vote.

Previously, Utah has only had two-person governor primaries with the winner achieving a majority. It did, however, elect Republican Mike Leavitt governor with a plurality of 42% in the general election of 1992 — Utah’s last gubernatorial contest with an open seat. Independent Merrill Cook split the vote that year, picking up 34% to Democrat Stewart Hanson’s 23%. Leavitt came back four years later to win 75% in the general election.

Two Utah lawmakers are readying legislation to solve the plurality problem by instituting ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters put candidates in order from their most favorite to least favorite. But those changes would come too late for Huntsman, Williams added.

State elections director Justin Lee said Aug. 31 is the deadline to file as a write-in candidate. Richard T. Whitney, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is the only write-in contender in the governor’s race so far.

Huntsman served as Utah’s governor beginning in 2005 and enjoyed great popularity during his term, boasting approval ratings that reached 90% at times. He stepped down in 2009 to accept a diplomatic posting in China and subsequently made a short-lived run for president before serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump.

He returned to Utah last year amid rumors that he was preparing a bid to reclaim the Utah governor’s post, or what he called “the best job in the world.”

But he came up slightly short against Cox, who was buoyed by his current position as lieutenant governor and support from outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert.

Tim Chambless, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Utah, said there are some examples of successful write-in bids. For instance, in 2010, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski used a write-in campaign to beat a tea party challenger who had bested her in the Republican primary.

But for the most part, in Utah, it doesn’t work, he said.

“You need to be on the ballot.”

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