Republican candidates for governor tangle over coronavirus and the economy in primetime debate

20200616 KUTV Debate

Long-simmering tensions between the four candidates for governor boiled over during Tuesday nights’ primetime debate in downtown Salt Lake City.

The debate, sponsored by 2News, was easily the most high profile political event in recent Utah memory as the four Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for governor, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright faced intense questioning from veteran journalists Rod Decker and Heidi Hatch. 

Even the Democratic nominee, Chris Peterson, purchased several ads during the event because his campaign knew how many Utahns would be tuned in to watch.

The format, a hybrid of extended one-on-one interviews with the candidates and a two free-flowing debate segments, allowed the four candidates to dig in on the issues. The debate was a far cry from the innumerable public forums the candidates have been slogging through on the campaign trail for months. It was also the polar opposite of the Utah Debate Commission’s stifling format that does a disservice to voters. 

Cox, who is leading the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, had his feet held to the fire by the moderators and his opponents for the GOP nomination. During he spent seven minutes during his 12-minute one-on-one segment answering questions about how Utah dealt with the Covid-19 outbreak, then saw his opponents gang up on him during the more traditional segment. 

“My complaint early on was the Covid task force was being used for political purposes,” said Huntsman, referring to the decision to put Cox at the head of the state’s task force.

Huntsman, who was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and was clearly struggling with the symptoms of the illness, ripped the state’s efforts to test for Covid-19.

“It took 4-5 days for me to get my test back. My family went through hell not knowing if we had it or not. That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Wright attacked Cox for the state’s spending on the response with millions of dollars going toward no-bid contracts. 

“When the things he’s supposed to be in charge of aren’t working, he’s nowhere to be round, but he wants to take credit for what went right,” he said. “The things he was supposed to be in charge of were a disaster.”

Hughes said Cox’s efforts to defend the state’s spending were “hollow words.” He also hammered the Herbert/Cox administration’s decision to shut down the economy.

“This shutdown created so many constitutional questions. We cannot shut down the economy again. You need a governor to trust the people to make these decisions and not take their liberties away,” he said.

The attacks clearly knocked Cox off balance for a time as he struggled to to deal with the three-pronged attack. But, he finally regained his balance after fending off the verbal fusilade by promising to email the other candidates a breakdown of the state’s spending on the virus response.

“I can only imagine how I would be attacked if I hadn’t done my job. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’ll learn from them. The people of Utah should be proud of the way we handled this,” said Cox.

The quartet of candidates also tangled over the response to the violence that swept through downtown Salt Lake City earlier this month. All four said they support peaceful protests, but condemned the violence that followed. 

Some debate odds and ends:

In one of the more surprising segments, Wright was asked about the story, first reported by, that Gov. Gary Herbert asked him to drop out of the race and support Cox, his hand-picked successor.

“If I were the governor, I wouldn’t have done that,” he said.

Decker, in his patented blunt style, asked Huntsman why Utahns should give him the job of governor again if he had it once but quit to become Ambassador to China in the Obama administration.

“Every governor has to ask themselves if they hear the call to serve again. We won and were re-elected, and I want to serve the people of Utah once more,” said Huntsman.

Huntsman also said he still favored public school vouchers as a means to bring more innovation to Utah’s public schools. Voters nixed Utah’s voucher program in 2007.

Cox, who was an outspoken critic of President Trump, was asked why he’s changed his tune and now supports the president.

“I didn’t think a billionaire from New York would care about rural Utah. I was wrong. Governor Herbert and I have a good relationship with the president,” said Cox.

If you missed the debate, you can watch the full event on the KUTV website.

[Editor’s note: Managing Editor Bryan Schott was involved in the planning for the KUTV debate and participated in drafting the questions for the candidates.]