Opinion briefs: Mayoral race down to wire . . . can an unknown candidate win governorship?

Mayoral race: a real test of candidate capabilities. The SLC mayoral race is tightening, according to a Salt Lake Tribune poll . Luz Escamilla is within the margin of error of frontrunner James Dabakis, and Erin Mendenhall isn’t far behind Escamilla.

But polls have a hard time predicting who’s going to vote. There could be a surprise in the primary election. It’s hard to predict which candidates will be most effective in getting their supporters to mail in their ballots or go to the polls.


The two candidates who square off in the final election will have truly earned their ballot spot. In a multi-candidate, low-key primary race, the winners will have excellent organizational skills, will have attracted a loyal army of volunteers and deployed them effectively, will be attractive to donors, and will have worked tirelessly, especially at the neighborhood level. Campaigns like this really are a test of how smart and hard-working the candidates are.

I have full confidence that Salt Lake City voters (myself included) will have the opportunity to vote for a very good mayor in the final election in November.

Can a relatively unknown candidate win gubernatorial race? There will be many twists and turns in the race for governor over the next several months. But one important question is whether any chance exists for an unknown candidate to emerge, catch fire, and compete with the big names like Jon Huntsman, Jr., and Spencer cox. 

For example, does a fellow like Thomas Wright have a decent shot? I think Wright or some other low-profile candidate could win. But it will take incredibly hard work, smart strategy, and a bit of luck.

Wright is a former Salt Lake County and state GOP chair. He is very well respected among Republican insiders. He has the capacity to bridge the gap between mainstream Republicans and the far-right wing of the party. He has a history of listening to both sides and finding a practical way forward. He’s also a successful real estate executive and has significant money he could devote to the race.

But he’s barely known among general voters. He came in tied for a distant 3rd in a recent Salt Lake Chamber poll, far behind Cox and Huntsman, and tied with former House Speaker Greg Hughes.

Can he make up the ground?

With enough money, a mostly-unknown candidate can buy name ID. But voters in 2020 will be looking for a candidate who can take Utah to the next level. Cox or Huntsman are reasonably good prospects to do that.

Could Wright do better? He’d have to convince opinion leaders and voters that his vision is bigger, and he can execute it better, than the more well-known candidates. He can provide the leadership to take Utah to new heights of economic growth, while protecting life quality, improving air quality, keeping housing affordable, and preventing gridlock in the face of rapid population growth.

The lesser-known candidates like Wright, Aimee Winder Newton and Jeff Burningham have little to lose if they run credible races. Winning a major office often takes two or three tries. They gain valuable experience, build visibility and name ID, and set themselves up nicely for a future contest.