Pro-Huntsman website, campaign donations fuel hopes of a write-in effort

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Former Gov. Jon Huntsman appears on a screen participating in a Utah gubernatorial Republican primary debate with former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and former House Speaker Greg Hughes, in Salt Lake City, June 16, 2020.

A website attempting to “draft” Jon Huntsman as a write-in candidate for Utah governor and recent six-figure donations to his campaign are stoking his supporters’ hopes that the former diplomat is not giving up after his primary election defeat.

Huntsman so far hasn’t directly confirmed that he’s considering a last-ditch attempt at becoming the state’s top executive, and last month said “we won’t be pursuing any efforts for a write-in campaign.”

But campaign finance records show his mother, Karen Huntsman, has dumped more than $1 million into her son’s gubernatorial campaign account since the June 30 Republican primary. The most recent donation of $425,000 came on July 20, a full two weeks after Huntsman conceded defeat to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and released a statement saying he would “accept the will of the people, as is our tradition as Americans.”

Also in recent weeks, a website has emerged to persuade Huntsman to run as a write-in candidate, and his supporters are polling on the viability of such a bid.

“Obviously, we can feel the momentum building,” said Alecia Williams, spokeswoman for a loose coalition of Huntsman supporters.

Huntsman has until Aug. 31 to file as a write-in candidate going up against Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson in the November general election. And his family members say they’re not involved in any of the current efforts to nudge him to rejoin the gubernatorial contest.

Huntsman’s daughter Abby Huntsman said Thursday her grandmother’s donations were to pay expenses related to the primary race, though the last campaign report, covering the period ending June 18, showed no debt and a balance of about $62,000 in the bank.

“The campaign is over, we have no expenditures and aren’t doing any polling,” Abby Huntsman, who worked on her father’s primary campaign, wrote in a text message. “Our family is removed from any outside write-in effort.”

Through the website, Huntsman supporters are collecting write-in pledges and encouraging people to put up signs for the former Utah governor. A short video posted on the site boasts that “the pencil is mightier than the primary” and suggests that a renewed Huntsman bid would give Utahns another chance to make “the write choice.”

The site states that no candidate or campaign committee authorized it, and it’s not clear who’s behind it.

A Facebook group called “Write-In Huntsman” has been promoting the site, but one of its administrators, Amy Lloyd, says the group members did not create it. They did reserve the web address DraftJon.com and set it to forward to the established write-in website, Lloyd said.

The 640-member Facebook group has also been repurposing Huntsman’s campaign signs by slapping DraftJon.com stickers on them, the Ogden resident added.

Lloyd said former House Speaker Greg Hughes was her first choice in the Republican primary, but Huntsman was a close second. And she — like others who are advocating for a write-in campaign — is dissatisfied by the primary outcome that gave Cox the win even though a majority voted for one of the other three GOP candidates.

“We didn’t put a strong candidate in,” she said. “Spencer Cox won 36% of the vote, but then there’s the 65% that are left.”

Huntsman finished 1 percentage point behind Cox, with roughly 35% support. Cox’s campaign declined to comment Wednesday on the Huntsman write-in efforts.

Cox has taken a low profile since the election, turning down at least one early debate invitation and in some cases declining to answer reporters’ questions. He has also slowed down his fundraising, taking in just about $31,000 since his primary victory.

In a phone interview, Williams said her group isn’t behind the website but has helped commission a poll gauging the viability of a write-in effort. Results from the text survey of about 20,000 registered likely voters should be ready in the next several days, she said.

“Then we’ll take that data and put our plan together,” said Williams. “And our hope is to sit down with Huntsman within a week.”

So far, no one from her group has communicated directly with Huntsman, she said.

She’s not disclosing the identities of her group’s financial backers at this point, but she said they’re being careful not to run afoul of the state’s campaign finance laws. If Huntsman does decide to join the general election contest, information about donors and spending will become public, she noted.

Derek Brenchley, the state’s deputy elections director, said groups supporting a particular candidate typically have to file as political action committees and disclose their donations and expenditures. This situation is somewhat unusual, since it’s debatable whether Huntsman counts as a candidate, he said.

“You could make the argument both ways, that he is and is not a candidate,” Brenchley said. “But in this case, for these types of gray situations, we typically reach out to the organization and ask that they disclose who paid for the expenditure.”

Brenchley said his office just learned about the pro-Huntsman website and hasn’t yet contacted the group paying for it. Elections officials will likely review the issue this week and decide on a course of action, he added.

An Instagram post on Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman’s account last week hinted at continuing consideration of a November bid. The photo was of Huntsman sitting on a couch beside his granddaughter, Isabel, and appeared above a caption that said the toddler was trying to convince him to do a write-in campaign.

“He told her he’d think about it,” the post continued.

Abby Huntsman replied to the post Thursday night with the hashtag, “#allinhuntsmanwritein.”

Williams said the Instagram post and the infusion of cash from Karen Huntsman are promising signs that the former Utah governor is entertaining the idea of a write-in, adding that she’s “hopeful he just needs a final push from us.”

Though he hasn’t made clear his intentions, Huntsman has been speaking out about perceived flaws in Utah’s election procedures, telling the Deseret News that the state needs some form of runoff system.

“It doesn’t settle well with a lot of people that you can win a plurality and then march forward to victory,” he told the newspaper.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown noted in a written statement Friday night that Huntsman has promised on several occasions since losing to Cox that he would “respect the will of the people” and was not interested in pursuing a write-in campaign.

“The party takes him at his word,” Brown said.

“The Utah Republican Party is 100% supportive of our party’s nominee, Spencer Cox, who won both the state convention and the primary election,” he continued. “In fact, Cox received almost 25,000 more votes in this year’s primary election than [Gov. Gary] Herbert received in the primary election four years ago.”

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