Bob Bernick’s notebook: High stakes in the GOP primary for governor

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Our new poll this week shows the Utah GOP governor’s race static at the top: Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox still leads former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman by 7 percentage points.

The new numbers are:

— Cox, 39 percent of “likely” GOP primary voters.

— Huntsman, 32 percent.

— Former GOP House Speaker Greg Hughes, 23 percent.

— Former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright, 6 percent.

Our pollster, Y2 Analytics, didn’t give the respondents the option of saying “don’t know,” because the question is posed like the June 30 ballot will be — you don’t get a “don’t know” on the ballot, if you decide to vote in the governor’s race you have to pick one candidate, one only.

The top two in our polls have been about the same for months now.

Who has moved is Hughes.

He started way down when the race was among 10 or more candidates, in low single digits.

As other possible candidates didn’t get in the race, and when the race was winnowed down to just four after the state Republican convention, Hughes has been picking up support from those former candidates (with Wright getting a bit, also).

But Hughes is still in third place, with Wright lagging way behind, now with only 6 percent support among GOP registered voters who said they are “likely” to vote in the primary.

Now, this will be an all-mail-in-ballot vote.

Yes, a few counties will have drive-in voting on June 30. But those folks will surely be in the great minority.

Most of Utah’s registered Republicans will get a ballot in the mail, put down their favorites, and mail it back to their local county clerk.

I would hope this will be a really big turnout.

In the last GOP governor’s primary race, 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert beat challenger Jonathan Johnson, 71.7 percent to 28.3 percent.

Utah Election Office statistics show 246,529 registered Republicans voted in that race or a turnout of 38.9 percent.

Of course, Herbert was the incumbent then.

Today, the seat is open — Herbert is retiring at the end of this year.

And Utah hasn’t had an open governor’s race since 2004 when Huntsman won the seat and Herbert was his LG running mate.

Huntsman resigned early in his second term after winning a landslide re-election in 2008. Herbert ascended to the governorship, and won three elections himself, the last in 2016.

I would think we’ll have a higher GOP turnout this primary, considering this election is for all intents the final — Utahns haven’t elected a Democrat for governor since the late Scott M. Matheson won re-election in 1980.

And it ain’t gonna change this year — whoever wins June 30 will be our next governor come January.

While Hughes is in third place among all “likely” GOP primary voters, he is the clear conservative in the race (I’m not counting Wright, he only has 6 percent support).

And the Y2 survey shows Hughes with 35 percent support among those Republicans who said they are “strong conservatives.”

Cox is ahead among those voters with 37 percent support.

Huntsman does poorly, getting only 21 percent of the “strong conservative” voters.

Hughes needs to get these conservatives to the polls — or more accurately, to their kitchen tables where they fill out their mail-in ballots.

With four folks in the race and three being competitive, the winner could come in first with 35 percent of the vote, maybe even 30 percent.

It’s winner take all here, folks, there is no primary runoff if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

So think about this: When all is said and done, we could have a new governor elected by a third of the GOP primary voters.

He absolutely would be a minority governor — most Utahns initially wanting someone else as the state’s top executive.

A primary runoff or someone picked via Instant Runoff Voting, is a debate for another day.

This year we have what we have — and while in November the GOP candidate will be elected with almost assuredly a majority of voters, he likely won’t be picked by a majority of Republican voters in June.

As I see it, can Huntsman cobble together enough “mainstream,” or moderate, GOP voters in order to top Cox in the primary?

The top two candidates aren’t moving in the polls.

Hughes is moving up. And he has targeted Cox as the guy he has to drive down among voters — because Cox leads him both in mainstream Republicans AND conservative Republicans.

And Hughes has to take away some votes from Cox or Huntsman, or he has no chance finishing first in June. It does Hughes little good just to top Huntsman — a moral victory, perhaps — for second place.

No, both Huntsman and Hughes need to get some of Cox’s voters.

Or they have to significantly increase the turnout among registered Republicans, bringing in in essence new voters to the primary polls.

And Huntsman would be wise, as I’ve said before, to go after GOP-leaning independents (where Y2 finds him ahead of all four with 48 percent of that demographic vote).

Hughes comes in with only 9 percent of that GOP-leaning independent vote, so he doesn’t want those folks coming into the Utah Republican Party to vote, that just hurts him.

Yes, indeed.

Interesting political strategies among the various campaign camps going on right now — even if it is mostly behind the scenes as each candidate tries to I.D. his supporters, and get them to the polls — or the kitchen table — over the next several weeks.