Will Jon Huntsman run for governor in 2020? Separating truth from rumor

Jon Huntsman 04We’ve seen this picture before.

Summer 2017 the Utah political world was all aflutter with rumors that Mitt Romney, the beloved chief of the successful 2002 Utah Winter Olympics and 2012 GOP presidential nominee, was considering a run for the U.S. Senate from Utah, to replace then-U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch.

We had to wait. And wait. And wait, for Hatch to announce his retirement and for Romney to get in the race.

It wasn’t until December of that year before things started to shake out – Hatch was headed for the door and Romney was in the race.

This summer we are again waiting on pins on needles over whether former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is going to resign his Russian ambassadorship and return to Utah to run for governor in 2020.

Over the last few weeks the Utah political rumor mill has been running strong, resulting in erstwhile reporters like me and UtahPolicy.com Managing Editor Bryan Schott calling around to see if Huntsman is about to announce something.

Folks, he isn’t there yet.

First off, according to U.S. State Department rules, an ambassador can’t start a political campaign, can’t start fundraising, can’t even hire staff, until he formally resigns his post.

He has to be careful even talking about his political future.

He may softly test the waters, but just with his big toe, so to speak.

Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye were in Utah several weeks ago for the births of one grandchild and a pair of grand twins, as UtahPolicy.com reported. During the visit, Huntsman met with political allies and supporters to discuss a potential 2020 run, but those conversations were described as extremely informal and very preliminary.

The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins reported Huntsman was planning to resign his post as ambassador to Russia this fall after he hits the two-year mark in his tenure.

That visit has apparently started Utah politicos talking. All kinds of rumors have been going around:

  • Huntsman has a campaign team up and going.
  • He is going to announce his ambassadorship resignation soon.
  • He is even looking for a lieutenant governor running mate.
  • He has a detailed plan for his nascent campaign.

None of those rumors are true, or at least nobody close to Huntsman will confirm them.

Like Romney two years ago, it is true that should Huntsman get in the 2020 GOP governor’s race, he would be the immediate frontrunner.

Like Romney, other wannabe candidates would have to reassess their chances, and their campaigns, if Huntsman gets in.

He was a popular governor, winning two elections easily.

Has personal wealth to bring him through a contested Republican primary campaign.

And carries enough political cache to win a third gubernatorial race, should he get in that position.

But for now, the rumor mill should quiet down somewhat.

Huntsman is in no hurry.

Yes, as UtahPolicy.com has reported, Huntsman did meet quietly with would-be supporters when he was in town to visit the new grandkids, but none of the other rumors have panned out.

It is true that a few of his old gubernatorial staffers and political guys have been talking, in turn, to some folks around town.

But that does not a political campaign make.

Huntsman’s old political financial accounts are closed down. No new ones have been opened.

He has no political organization here.

He won’t be tapping the funds or connections of his former Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert – now 11-year incumbent governor, who is clearly backing his Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in next year’s race.

Cox probably has the most to lose by a Huntsman return to the governor’s race.

Cox can’t, and wouldn’t, try to run to Huntsman’s political right, as other GOP candidates might try to do if Huntsman returns.

Cox is a reasonable, mainstream conservative, who appeals to the open-heart crowd, including the LGTBQ community.

Huntsman came out in favor of same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it, and has been given awards by Utah’s LGBTQ groups.

Cox’s political base, what there is of it, overlaps significantly with Huntsman’s.

Cox, already an announced candidate for next year, is traveling the state, going to visit all 248 cities and towns.

And Huntsman is in Moscow. Waiting.

Utah’s political windmill, as far as the governor’s race is concerned, will have to wait along with him.