Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will be Utah’s next governor

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file) In this June 30, 2020, file photo, Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox greets supporters arriving to his primary election night part at a drive-in theater in Mount Pleasant in his home county of Sanpete. Cox pulled off another victory on Tuesday and will be Utah's next governor.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has claimed victory in the Utah governor’s race, the culmination of his rapid political ascent from a small-town politician to the state’s top executive post.

The Republican was ahead of Chris Peterson by an insurmountable 64% to 31% in the early unofficial returns posted Tuesday night. The Associated Press called the race for Cox soon after polls closed.

During a virtual speech to supporters, Cox delivered a call to unity from a former dance hall built by his ancestors in rural Fairview.

“My fellow Utahns, I promise you I’m not the governor of the Republican Party,” Cox said, his eyes watering as he stood next to his family. “I’m the governor of the state of Utah. And that means all of us.”

A few minutes later, the lieutenant governor told reporters he’d just gotten off the phone with Peterson, whom he praised as a candidate committed to the type of civility often absent from the national political discourse.

In a statement conceding the race, Peterson thanked Cox for running a respectful campaign and wished him well in leading the state as governor.

“This campaign was about building a new beginning for the Democratic Party in Utah,” Peterson said. “My name was on the ballot, but this was never about me. It was about fighting to make a positive difference in the daily lives of working people.”

Cox entered the race nearly 18 months ago with an aura of incumbency, thanks to the support of outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert and his high-profile role in the current administration. But his path grew more challenging when another political heavyweight, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, returned from his ambassadorial posting in Russia and entered the GOP primary race late last year.

Now, after squeaking out a victory in the Republican primary and building up a formidable lead in the early general election totals, Cox continues the political rise that began when Herbert appointed him as lieutenant governor in 2013.

Cox, 45, was an obscure freshman lawmaker at the time Herbert plucked him out of the crowd, but since landing a spot in the administration, he’s become one of the state’s most prominent political figures — known for his active Twitter presence and for choosing to drive about 200 miles each day to and from the state Capitol rather than leave his family farm in Fairview.

His Democratic rival, on the other hand, joined the governor’s race without any prior experience in political office, and his unfamiliarity to Utah voters dogged him throughout the campaign. Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, also suffered from a sizable fundraising disadvantage and headed into the final weeks of the general election race with a mere tenth of the campaign cash that Cox had amassed.

In addition, Peterson has had to contend with the political balance in Utah, where a conservative electorate has been putting Republicans in the governor’s mansion for nearly four decades.

Peterson did draw national media attention by working with Cox to release a series of ads calling for civility in a time of political polarization and urging people to respect the outcome of the presidential election.

“It’s time to reforge a national commitment to decency and our democratic republic," Cox and Peterson said in a joint statement announcing the ad campaign.

Cox has garnered a reputation as a moderate Republican who largely adheres to party policies while steering clear of the caustic rhetoric employed by President Donald Trump and others in the GOP. Possibly his most famous speech to date — delivered on the heels of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting — contained his tearful apology to the LGBTQ community for past homophobia and earned praise nationally as an example of empathy from a Republican politician.

The lieutenant governor was also a sharp critic of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and vowed not to vote for him barring a major change in the candidate’s tone and rhetoric. Cox had changed his position on Trump by this year’s gubernatorial race, offering support for the president’s reelection bid while conceding that “his style of politics is not the Utah Republican style of politics.”

Cox’s opponents in the four-way GOP primary attacked him for his reversal on Trump and slammed him on Utah’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the lieutenant governor served early on as head of the state’s coronavirus task force.

Criticism about Cox’s role in the pandemic response stretched into the general election, with Peterson calling on Herbert to strip the lieutenant governor of his COVID-19 leadership role as case numbers soared to record levels.

The Democratic candidate took issue with Herbert’s reluctance to impose a statewide mask-wearing mandate and with Cox for at first refusing to take a stand and then backing the governor’s decision. Peterson also condemned some of the state’s no-bid spending during the pandemic and argued that the administration’s failure to listen to health experts had resulted in testing delays and insufficient protective equipment for medical workers.

Huntsman, Cox’s GOP rival, echoed some of those critiques as he weighed a general election write-in campaign after narrowly losing the June primary to the lieutenant governor. Ultimately, the former ambassador decided against the write-in but said he remained concerned about the coronavirus task force that Cox led and the state’s no-bid contracting.

“[I]f there was corruption, it should never die in darkness, and power should never silence truth,” he wrote in a social media post.

State auditors later issued a report finding that Utah leaders spent millions of dollars in no-bid contracts with little documentation of due diligence. The report also noted that Herbert and Cox have “relatively close” ties with tech companies that received some of the contracts, although the governor’s administration said those relationships had no bearing on the state spending.

Herbert, currently the nation’s longest-serving governor with 11 years in the post, nudged Cox to run for governor after confirming he wouldn’t be seeking reelection in 2020.

Cox’s John Deere-themed campaign highlighted his roots in rural Sanpete County, where his family has been farming for generations. Early in the race, the candidate pledged to visit all 248 cities and towns in Utah, and he kept that promise despite the challenges created by the pandemic.

Before he entered politics, Cox worked as vice president and general counsel at CentraCom, a telecommunications business founded as a telephone company in the early 20th century. Cox first served in public office as a Fairview City council member and went on to spend time as the city’s mayor and as a Sanpete County commissioner. He was in his first year as a state legislator when Herbert chose him as his second-in-command.

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