Bob Bernick’s notebook: Plot thickens on Herbert/Wright chat

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Well, as you can say about so many political problems, the plot now thickens.

During a Thursday morning press conference on the state’s actions fighting the coronavirus, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert confirmed on live TV that he 1) did discuss with Republican gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright the possibility that Wright get out of the race before the June 30 primary and 2) that if Wright did get out, he should support Herbert’s handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Of course, Managing Editor Bryan Schott and I broke the story Tuesday that Herbert had met personally with Wright at least twice in recent weeks seeking Wright to get out of the race and support Cox.

Both Wright and Herbert refused to discuss the content of the meetings with us, although it was acknowledged that the two often met to discuss “private” issues, and did so recently.

As the pack of Utah journalists descended on Herbert and Wright, at first the pair continued to refuse to talk about the meeting. But then Herbert decided to talk in the presser about it, probed by a question by KUTV 2News reporter Brian Mullahy. (Good work there.)

What happens with this Herbert/Wright issue over the next five weeks before the closed GOP primary could be a factor in whether voters pick Cox as the party nominee — virtually ensuring him the governor’s seat when Herbert retires the end of this year — or whether former Gov. Jon Huntsman or former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes jump to the forefront in the governor’s race.

A recent 2News poll by Y2 Analytics finds Cox with a 7-point-lead over Huntsman, 39-32 percent, with Hughes coming in third at 23 percent.

Wright struggles at just 6 percent support of those who said they are likely to vote in the GOP primary — so it appears Wright is too far behind to win June 20.

In fact, is told that that poll was one reason Herbert asked for a second meeting with Wright, to again ask him to get out of the race and support Cox.

Wright is quoted in our Tuesday story as saying he never considered getting out of the race, and is in it to win it.

The reason the Herbert/Wright issue could explode in both Herbert’s and Cox’s faces is this: Utah has a law, passed in the early 1990s, which clearly says it is a Class B misdemeanor for anyone to entice someone not to get in a political race, or for a candidate to drop out of a race — with a promise of any kind of “pay” or “reward.”

Herbert said Thursday that he didn’t promise Wright anything. reported that Herbert suggested to Wright that he consider running against GOP Sen. Mike Lee in 2022, rather than continue Wright’s gubernatorial race this year.

There was a small upheaval four years ago among some GOP Utah elite, looking to find someone to challenge Lee within the party. It never amounted to much, and Lee was easily re-nominated by Republicans and re-elected.

Why would Herbert/Cox do such a thing as suggest Wright get out of the governor’s race? Isn’t the downside — that it would become public — much worse than any upside?

Well, first off, with such a close race, as our poll shows, Wright getting out of the race could push some votes over to Cox, assuming Wright endorsed him. That could be determinative — give Cox the primary win, thus the governorship.

On a smaller scale, a Wright endorsement could bring cascading endorsements from the Utah Realtor Association (Wright is one of the most successful Relators in the state), historically one of the largest dollar contributors to campaigns in Utah, and an endorsement from GOP heavy-hitter Fred Lampropoulos, brother-in-law to Wright, head of Merit Medical and 2004 gubernatorial candidate.

I’m no lawyer, not a prosecuting attorney.

I don’t know where any complaint could even be filed — with the Utah Elections Office, which is overseen by Cox? (Cox has set up a bypass where anything election-related with him is decided by an outside, former LG arbiter.)

But I’d say the governor might just be looking over his shoulder the next few weeks — despite Herbert’s claim he did nothing wrong.

A decade ago, a candidate for state treasurer told an intra-party challenger that he would allow him to keep his state job if he got out of the race — opening the road for the first candidate. It blew up in his face, he lost the GOP primary and pled guilty to a minor charge because of the Utah law. (Cox was not at the meetings between Herbert and Wright, so he has some deniability here.)

While that is history, who knows where all this may lead. Now we’ll see if Wright has anything more to say about the brewing political storm.

At the very least, this shows just how far Herbert will go in helping a friend, Cox, in the latter’s political career.

Herbert and Cox both can only hope now that the move doesn’t end a career.