Close-up results of early elections in Utah’s governor race show a contest between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
On Election Night, statewide voting results showed Cox with 37% of the vote versus 35% for Huntsman. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes fell behind with 21%, while former Republican Party President Thomas Wright got about 8%.
According to published results, a chorus of honking sounded from the cars of Cox supporters at the Sanpete County Drive-In Movie Theater where he held his night party.
“Tonight, the people of Utah have spoken,” he told supporters after the voting closed. “We recognize that it’s still pretty close … so we know it’s too early to celebrate, it’s too early to call, but we feel really good about where we are now.”
Huntsman, speaking to reporters shortly after the results released Tuesday, said they looked “fabulous” for his campaign and predicted that his vote total would increase with the final tally.
“Elections are unfolding: the most beautiful thing we have in our political system, when every voice matters,” he said.
In the deep red state of the hive, many hope that the Republican Party’s four-party primary contest will decide Governor Gary Herbert’s successor, who has served longer than any other currently-serving governor in the United States.
Herbert’s decision not to seek reelection created a meager open seat that drew eight Republican applicants to the primary competition. By the day of the primary election, only four remained standing: candidates who have collectively spent months and more than $ 6.5 million looking for victory.
The winner will face Democrat Chris Peterson, professor of law at the University of Utah, in November. But Utah’s minority party hasn’t elected a governor in four decades: the last was Scott Matheson, who won a second term in 1980.
From the start of their rivalry, Cox has portrayed the showdown as David’s biblical fight against Goliath, describing himself as the little guy against wealth and Huntsman’s prestigious last name.
And the former governor’s family wealth served him well. During the last days of the primary race, when Huntsman had nearly run out of funds, his mother replenished her bank account by writing a check for $ 350,000, campaign financial records show.
Still, Cox entered the race with his own set of perks, including the air of concern that came from Herbert’s endorsement and fundraising help.
The latest polls suggested a tight dispute between Cox and Huntsman, but gave the lieutenant governor a slight edge.
As the race progressed, Hughes also made his way in the polls while presenting himself as the true conservative option, in contrast to the more moderate Huntsman and Cox. He was successful with the faithful Republicans, who chose him and Cox as their two favorite gubernatorial candidates during the party’s nomination convention.
Wright, on the other hand, never seemed able to break out of his fourth-place position in the polls, despite calling himself a rare politician who would bring a new perspective to the state Capitol.
But the coronavirus pandemic shaped the race almost as much as the candidates themselves and, in certain cases, amplified aspects of their personalities.
Hughes criticized the government restrictions and even moved his Salt Lake County night party to avoid his mandate to wear masks. Cox and Huntsman emphasized their abilities to lead a crisis, as the lieutenant governor helped lead the state’s COVID-19 response and the former governor launched his vision for a thriving economy to emerge from the public health emergency.
During the main contest, Cox played his roots in Fairview, the town of approximately 1,350 people where his family has lived for seven generations. Rather than abandon his farm in Sanpete County, Cox has made a roughly two-hour commute to and from the State Capitol daily, a fact he highlighted in the video announcing his candidacy for governor.
Cox, 44, served as city councilman, mayor, and county commissioner before winning the Utah House election. Cox was still a freshman state representative in 2013 when Herbert pulled him out of relative darkness to serve as his second-in-command.
When he decided that he would not attempt reelection, Herbert nudged his protégé to run and eventually supported Cox, despite Herbert having served as lieutenant governor under Huntsman.
Before what was predicted to be a close race between him and Cox, the Huntsman campaign has fueled the change of party, with polls showing that the former governor had an advantage among unaffiliated and Democratic voters. The Utah Republican Party has won more than 113,000 new active voters since late last year and nearly 54,000 this month alone, and political scientists speculated that those voters could tip the scales in their favor.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Libby Seline contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, Chairman of the non-profit board of directors of The Salt Lake Tribune