Thursday, September 10, 2020

Race of the Day- Utah Governor

Utah Governor

54 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Open
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Safe Republican

Utah is fairly unique politically. It's largest city has become strongly liberal, but Salt Lake City is surrounded by a sea of conservatism and Mormonism everywhere else in the state in both suburban and rural areas. This makes the Utah one of the strongest Republican states in the nation. Nonetheless, Donald Trump, for all his public and private behavior is likely less popular here than among Republicans anywhere else in the country. Recently, Utah Republicans have been fighting among themselves over Trump. This may not persist after the current election, although Trump is still expected to carry the state, albeit by margins that do not come close to that of Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney of course is now the state's junior Senator and early this year became the first Senator in United States history to vote to convict a President of their own party in an impeachment trial.

Republican Gary Herbert became Governor over 11 years ago when his predecessor Jon Huntsman Jr., a scion of one of the richest and most influential families in the state resigned to become Barack Obama's Ambassador to China. Herbert has had no problem holding on to the job, often facing more serious competition for the nomination than against Democrats. In 2013, the Lt. Governor resigned and to replace him, Herbert selected Spencer Cox, then a 38 year old State Representative from a small rural county. Four years ago, the ticket was elected together. Heading into 2020, Herbert was eligible to run again and went back and forth publicly a bit before deciding to step aside and making it clear he supported Cox succeeding him. Despite this, plenty of ambitious Utah Republicans also took a look at running as it had been several cycles without an incumbent running for reelection.

Spencer Cox has been an interesting political character and has been very active on his personal Twitter account for several years talking frequently about his family, sports, and other matters.. A devout Mormon and staunch conservative, he has called for the Republican Party to be more inclusive. In 2016, he made headlines, after the Orlando nightclub terrorist attack for apologizing for mistreating classmates growing up and vowing to be a better ally of the LGBT community. Cox was also in 2016 very, very anti-Trump, in terms of the Republican nomination and then saying he could not vote for him in a general election. The Lt. Governor had clearly taken his stance with the Romney wing of the party nationally (and in Utah.)

Utah holds a nominating convention, typically dominated by the most conservative elements of the state party, in which some candidates either qualify or fail to make the ballot for the June primary. Other hopefuls play it safe by qualifying via petition signatures. The candidates for Governor pick their Lt. Governor running-mate ahead of the convention and run as a team. In a seven way field, Cox and his pick for Lt. Governor, State Senator Deidre Henderson finished in the top spot in the first round with 30 percent. The endorsement contest would go all the way to the sixth ballot though as the other candidates were eliminated and Cox finally prevailed 55-45 over State House Speaker Greg Hughes. Both men would advance to the primary where they would also be joined by businessman Thomas Wright, a former State Republican Party Chair. Interestingly enough, Wright was running with Rob Bishop, a longtime Congressman who had announced his retirement from that body, and who was likely a good deal better known than the candidate for Governor he was running with.

There would also be a fourth Republican on the ballot. Jon Huntsman Jr. had decided he wanted his job back. After his time in Beijing, he made an unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Republican nomination as the most moderate candidate, even as his distant cousin Mitt Romney was the front-runner. After leaving the race, Huntsman quickly endorsed Romney, but some had expected that there was enough bad blood existing that could have had Huntsman support Barack Obama instead. In the next election, Huntsman endorsed and then pulled his support of Donald Trump. After Trump won though, the politician started to speak highly of him and he was named by Trump to be Ambassador to Russia.. of all places.

Once again Huntsman would leave a foreign capital to make a run for office, and polls showed he stood a very good chance of being elected Governor again, despite the fact that his former running-mate and current Governor Herbert, was still going to be backing the current Lt. Governor. Cox was considered more conservative than Huntsman, and certainly grew up under much more humble circumstances which in many ways made him preferable to party activists, while Huntsman's overall name recognition were expected to be a boon for him and his Lt. Governor running-mate Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi in the primary. Everyone running for both offices were members of the LDS Church, although some years previously, Huntsman was not able to definitively state that he still considered himself a Mormon.

Hughes and Wright would run to the right of both Cox and Huntsman though and in particular, Hughes ran as a Trump supporter and called out Cox for his litany of NeverTrump Tweets from 2016 and into the early months of the Trump Administration. Cox attempted to say that while he was very different than Donald Trump, he could work with him as Governor and was focused on state issues. At a debate, all the candidates were asked if they supported Trump's reelection and all indicated they did. Speaking personally, as someone who had become an admirer of Lt. Governor Cox, this was quite disappointing to me. I simply do not believe he actually intends to vote for Trump.

Ambition causes politicians to take positions though that they feel they have no other choice. How would Cox had done in a four way primary had he run as an unyielding Romneysque Trump critic in the GOP? The positioning of the candidates was already unusual. Many Democrats had conceded that the winner of the primary would go on to be Governor and some said they intended to cross over to vote for either Cox or Huntsman, rather than see the spot go to one of the more pro-Trump candidates. Had Cox stood by his guns on Trump it is likely he would have gotten a bunch more Democrats to cross over and support him in the primary. He also would have won votes from those who ultimately went to Huntsman, because of the belief that Huntsman was the most moderate candidate or that the differences between him and Cox were very minor.

Heading into the primary, polls showed that Cox had a very slight lead over Huntsman, but there was also a belief that the results could be unpredictable and that a Hughes win was also a possibility (although apparently the presence of Wright and Bishop together on the ballot was hurting that cause.) Towards the end of the campaign, Huntsman, his wife, and other family members, including daughter Abby, who left her job as a panelist on the "The View" to support her father's campaign were diagnosed with Covid 19. Not long before, the candidate had been spotted shaking hands with voters, but was forced to quarantine during this crucial period.

The results were tight on Primary Night and took a few days until a winner was assured. Cox won the contest with 36 percent of the vote to Huntsman's 35 percent. Hughes took 21 percent and Wright eight percent. Nationally, the result was a bit more of a surprise than those who had followed the race more closely in Utah. The bottom line is that a former popular twice elected multi-millionaire Governor who had Presidential ambitions at once point lost a bid for his old job in a primary to a younger and balder opponent who grew up on a farm. I think Cox would have won by more had he not "endorsed" Trump, but that's neither here or there.

Of course, there is a Democrat running for Governor as well who had easily prevailed at that party's convention and faced no primary opposition. Law professor and former CFPB official Chris Peterson is running alongside Karina Brown, a health care organizer, who had run unsuccessfully for State Representative in 2018. Both major party nominees were born in 1975.

Shortly after Huntsman conceded the race, without a formal endorsement of Cox, there was some sudden chatter, apparently coming from the pro-Trump faction that had backed Greg Hughes, that Huntsman might run as a write-in for Governor in the general election. How that would have affected the final result is unknown but Huntsman eventually said he had no interest in pursuing such a thing.

The truth is that Utah Republicans are probably not all that united in this race. A large faction of voters say they are undecided, but it is hard to imagine they will actually vote for a Democrat. Cox The polls show Cox has a huge advantage nonetheless, and likely will have some Democrats that support him. Utah is so Republican though it really does not matter. Cox will almost certainly still win in a landslide.

Once the general election is over, and Trump is either a lame duck in the Oval Office or a disgraced ex outside of it, I hope that Spencer Cox, in addition to focusing on his specific duties as Governor of Utah, will also feel the need to be the kind of Republican voice he likely wants to be. The party will need it.

Governor races predicted thus far: 
2 D (2 Likely)
6 R (2 Safe, 2 Likely, 2 Lean)

Total with predictions thus far:

22 Democrats (20 holdovers, 2 Likely)
25 Republicans (19 holdovers, 2 Safe, 2 Likely, 2 Lean)


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