Utah governor race has conservative coronavirus fault lines

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In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., speaks during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City. Huntsman Jr. has one of the most recognizable names in the state as a former popular governor and son of a billionaire philanthropist. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Donald Trump to return to Utah and make a run and reclaiming his seat. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

SALT LAKE CITY – A few months ago, the crowded contest for the Republican nomination in Utah’s first wide-open governor's race in more than a decade was about how to manage the state’s breakneck growth. Now, it's showcasing conservative fault lines over the coronavirus crisis response and what recovery looks like.

The four-way June 30 vote will be a test of whether the conservative state’s approach to the pandemic can withstand criticism from the right and if a well-known political figure can still capture voters’ attention during a time of deep uncertainty.

Jon Huntsman Jr. has one of the most recognizable names in the state as a former popular governor and son of a billionaire philanthropist. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump to run for his old job.

Then the pandemic hit, putting campaign rallies and door-knocking strictly off limits.

“We've been locked up in our homes where the only people able to campaign and politicize have been those in the governor’s office,” he said during a Monday-night debate, alluding to the fact that one of his rivals has been out front in the response.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, known for his earnest grin and quirky Twitter feed, argued that he's been doing his job by leading the state's coronavirus task force. He touted the approach of his boss, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who made his stay-home order voluntary and moved early to reopen the economy. “We've done it ... as well or better than any other state in this nation,” he said.

Herbert is backing Cox after deciding not to run again. Recent polls have pointed at the lieutenant governor pulling ahead.

That's made Cox a target of criticism from his three opponents, who blasted no-bid state contracts and health questionnaires pushed to residents' phones. Real estate executive Thomas Wright, who has positioned himself as the race's outsider, argued that “the proper role of government was to disseminate the information ... and then allow people to make choices based on their freedoms and liberties.”

And there's been a drumbeat of criticism from former Utah House speaker Greg Hughes, an early Trump supporter who's been surging in polling amid staggering unemployment and lockdown protests. Calling himself the “true conservative” in the race, he compared the responses to the virus quarantine orders and nationwide protests over police brutality.

“I'm with this president. If you’re going to go and find quarantine issues to bring down the law, but you ... let these rioters go, that’s a deal killer and we cannot let that happen to our country or our state,” he said.

Other Republicans debating Monday night agreed that the death of George Floyd was wrong, but backed police force and National Guard force to keep damage at bay. Still, Huntsman questioned whether an overly strong response erodes civil liberties while Wright called for police-training reforms.

All four candidates have said they support Trump's re-election, though Cox was once a sharp critic of the president's pugnacious style and immigration policies.

Disagreeing with the president is not necessarily a deal-breaker in Utah, where the Trump's style has never meshed well with the state’s predominately polite, immigrant-welcoming brand of conservatism.

Jared Woodruff, who works in education, said he was a conservative until Trump came along in 2016. He now considers himself an independent, but is registering Republican so he can vote in the primary. He’s still deciding between Huntsman and Cox, but has so far been impressed with the state’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“Why try to fix something that’s not broken?” said Woodruff, who is from St. George. “I feel like Cox is on the front lines, in the trenches, he’s been listening to the federal guidelines.”

On the other end of the spectrum are voters like David Crandall, a tech worker from Pleasant Grove who became a Hughes fan years ago because of his support for Trump and deepened his support during the pandemic.

“You keep hearing over and over that Utah wasn't locked down, Utah is doing so great,” he said. "Well, I know lots of businesses that have closed their doors ... some of these businesses are never coming back.”

In the unusually crowded GOP field, a winner will likely emerge without a majority of the vote, said Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. The nominee will face Democratic law professor Chris Peterson in November, but Utah has elected Republican governors for decades.

Meanwhile, many voters remain undecided days before ballots go out for the all-mail election, Karpowitz said.

"There are so many other aspects of life that have been overwhelming over the past several months," he said. “Circumstances can change. Voters may make up their minds at the last second in a world where we're all distracted.”