Spencer Cox threw his hat in the ring for the 2020 Utah gubernatorial race last week. If he wins, Cox would become the first Utah Lt. Governor to win an election to the governor's office.
Cox and his wife Abby spoke with UtahPolicy.com shortly after announcing his candidacy to discuss why he's running, what it's like to be a Utah Republican in the age of Trump, and why the Utah GOP desperately needs to find a way to attract younger and minority voters.
Our conversation is lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
Something I ask every candidate for office. Why you, why now?
There are several reasons. The first, Gov. Herbert asked me to consider running, us to consider running. So, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, doing all the things that candidates do. Talking to people, praying about it, talking to our family, making sure that this was right for us.
So the “why”? I have a very unique background that I think has prepared us for this opportunity. I don't know that we've ever had someone that, that has run for governor with the experience that I've had running a successful rural business for 10 years, serving on a city council, as a mayor, as a county commissioner in the House of Representatives. And then of course, as lieutenant governor, five and half years.
We have some unique challenges that are, that are headed our way. And I think that that background helps me understand the challenges facing both urban and rural Utah, which are a different set of challenges.
I don't need to be governor. We don't need this. If we can't win, there's no reason to go through the pain of an election. And so part of this is looking at the landscape and some of the polling that says we have a really good shot. I think as good as anybody. It doesn't mean we will. It just felt right. It felt like this was what we were supposed to do. It doesn't mean we're going to win, but it does mean that, that we're supposed to try and we're committed to trying to improve the state through this process.
Why are you announcing in May of 2019, more than a year away from the election?
I expected people to start jumping into this race before now. If you look at the Idaho race, all four major candidates announced before the end of May. If you look across the country, this is really normal.
I didn't think we would be first out of the gate. I actually thought people would start announcing in April and early May. So I was, I was a little surprised about that. The last time we had an open gubernatorial race was 2004 and before that 1992. Elections have changed a lot since then.
Everyone thought I was running and everybody just kept saying we know you're running. So it got to the point where we had to make a decision. Either we're in or we're out, and once we've made that decision, there's no reason not to be in. Let's just go. I never expected that we would be first out of the gate, but it's not the worst thing to be first out of the gate.
You’ve been saying for months you were 90% decided, but not ready to take the leap. But, I noticed on your announcement video, there was a heck of a lot of snow on the ground. When did you actually film that?
This is my favorite part of that video. We filmed it and we thought everybody's going to think we had this in the can for two months. It was all filmed on the same day two weeks ago. We got two inches of snow in the morning and we were panicking cause we were supposed to film that day and it snowed and we were asking what do we do? And then it warmed up and it melted. So it looked like two seasons, all shot in 10 hours. It made for some cool shots. You're the only one that's brought that up. But it's really funny cause we assumed we'd get some of that.
You said you decided to get in the race once you figured out there was a path to victory. What does that path look like?
We don't have any internal polling. We just have gotten polling that was done in January that showed us amongst Republicans, I think I was at 28%. I think Jason Chaffetz was a 27% and nobody else was closer than maybe 10. So that was very positive.
What we thought and what we've seen over the past 24 hours is that the support is deep. We have people that we didn't even know that are really supportive. Like, here's some money we want to knock on doors for you supportive. That was really important to us and, and really overwhelming to see that support.
I don't know what's going to happen with plurality in the state. I don't know if the legislature's gonna do something with that. The path for us is and has always been caucus-convention and signatures both like Senator Lee, Senator Romney, Gary Herbert have all done. We like our chances.
I also think that the results of the state convention were very positive as we had 2100 delegates, what many would assume are the more conservative delegates out of the 4,000 that show up on a beautiful Saturday morning expecting to be there for eight hours even though we weren't. And then to see somebody like Derek Brown, who was my mentor in the house, a good friend, our politics are very similar, and to see him win by a fairly substantial margin. I think those results say that the party is closer to us than maybe some people anticipate.
I’m struck by your use of the word “us.” You’re obviously referring to your wife. Are you ready for this campaign? There could be a stampede of candidates and this campaign could get rough.
Abby Cox: Well, you have to understand we've been doing this a long time. This is not the first race we've ever run and we’ve been around politics a lot. It can be rough and yeah, we're ready for it. We talked to our family. We've worked through these things. We've got some pretty thick skin. We want to be positive. If the negative comes, we're going to stay positive and this is going to be something we're going to do together.
You say you want to run a “different” kind of campaign and stay positive. It’s really difficult in politics when someone hits you to not hit back. I remember in the 2010 race Governor Herbert made a comment about Peter Corroon’s kids going to a private school. That was an opening where Corroon could have done some damage to Herbert, but he stayed away from it. How hard will it be to resist that if this race turns nasty because it could be decided by two or three percentage points in the GOP primary? The stakes are very, very high.
First of all, I recognize that every candidate says this and very, very few ever stick to it. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, weak-minded candidates to be perfectly honest. And two, is the political industrial complex. People that are good at campaigning sometimes aren't good at governing. They’re two very different things. What happens is good people surround themselves with people who tell them what they have to do and they just do it.
When you're paying somebody an enormous amount of money and they come in and say you are going to lose if you don't send out this mailer with this ugly picture of your opponent telling people that they cheated on their wife. And you think I'm paying them the money, they're the expert, let's just go ahead and do it. We're not gonna do that. In fact, everybody that works for us has to sign a pledge that they will not even recommend going negative against candidates.
We're, we're really trying to change and elevate the discourse around this. We want to be able to look back and say that the state is a better place because we ran the campaign that we ran, even if we lose. And that means doing positive things in the state, it means bringing people together.
Previously you’ve mentioned the Ben McAdams/Mia Love race, which was really nasty toward the end.
I hated everything about it.
That race was decided by less than 700 votes.
I know personally at least 10 people just in my own sphere who refused to vote for either of them because it was so nasty. In a race decided by 700 votes, lifelong Republicans who refuse to vote for, for either candidate is remarkable. I think that the charlatans, the political industrial complex, I think they're wrong. I think people will respond to a positive campaign.
It's important to have a competition of ideas and we can talk about what people are proposing and disagree and have those, but we can also attack negative campaigning, right? And that's not attacking the person, but we can call it out. I think it's fair to make that an issue of the campaign.
So many people have said negative campaigning doesn’t work in Utah. That’s clearly wrong. I think it does work in certain instances.
Would you say it worked in the 4th District? That's the problem. They were both nasty and negative. Was the world a better place because of those campaigns? I don't think so. I think good candidates win races. I don't think negative campaigning wins races or having the right color lapel pin wins races. I think those other things help around the margins. But I think what happens is a candidate goes negative and they win and everybody just says, well that's how you do it now.
I caught you at the Salt Lake County Convention. I noticed your speech there sounded a heck of a lot like a stump speech and you hit a lot of “red meat” issues for Republicans. I bring that up because you’re well-liked by political independents, you’re well-liked by Democrats and you’re well-liked by Republicans. That speech had a lot of “red meat” issues for the delegates. I’m not questioning your authenticity, but are you worried you might alienate some of those bi-partisan supporters while having to campaign for the Republican nomination?
I am not willing to do anything that's not authentic to who I am and what I believe. What that means is you emphasize sometimes different things. So, for example, in that speech, there were three things that I talked about that I absolutely believe in. I talked about small government. I talked about abortion, which this is something I've never shied away from. I've always been pro-life and I've made that very clear. And then I talk about the importance of free-market capitalism and jobs and those are things that I've talked about historically.
We're also in an election cycle where national Democrats are running for office and they're trying to out-liberal each other to get their nomination. And so we're in this atmosphere now where it's hyper hypercharged on that side and we're running through that lens.
I am a Republican. And while I appreciate the kindness of unaffiliated voters, and those on the left who like me. I'm glad. And I think that says something that you can be a conservative and treat people decently, and suddenly other people like you, which I think is an indictment more of where our party is nationally than maybe where I am personally.
Do you feel like you’re running against the wave of your own party nationally because you are a critic of the president? You didn’t endorse Trump. The Republican party has moved in his direction. Maybe they were already headed in that direction, he was just the tent pole they were pulled toward. Do you feel like you’re running against that, or is Republicanism in this state different enough that you can be true to that?
I believe that the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Utah is very different than it is nationally and where things are trending nationally. I think it absolutely is more of the Reagan style of conservatism than the Trump style of conservatism. People forget that he finished third by a long way in the Utah Republican caucus in 2016. I think he was at 9%. Ted Cruz was first and John Kasich was second. Trump was a distant third. That being said, we're Republicans in the state and, we historically support the Republican party. So I don't feel like I have to be something I'm not. I’m a Utah Republican and a Utah conservative and will continue to be that.
I also believe that Utah has an opportunity to be an example to the rest of the country about a brand of conservatism that brings people together that brings people into the tent. And I'm, I'm hopeful that we can do that.
Do you fear the party may face a reckoning in the future?
Can Utah Republicans hold out against this rising tide of Republicanism becoming Trumpism?
I'm concerned about the next generation of Republicans and conservatives. If you look at the numbers, we're getting destroyed in the 18 to 39 or 18 to 30 bracket. Because of the rhetoric nationally, we're losing these college-aged kids and millennials, that is a concern to me. We've had a supermajority in the state now for a few decades, which has been great. But pendulums always swing. And if we're not careful, we've seen it in the states around us. we're becoming more purple, mostly in Salt Lake County. Not for the whole state for sure. Where I live, rural Utah is still very, very red. But you could see it one generation away. We could see that change if we're not careful. And that's where I want to make the argument that Latinos should be part of our party. I'm trying to make the argument that young people, that there's a place for them in our party as well.
What are some of the themes you plan on emphasizing as you campaign for the Republican nomination?
Yes, I am running for the Republican nomination with an eye towards representing the whole state. Really it's the problems that our state is facing and they're a very different set of problems than the problems that Gary Herbert faced 10 years ago when he became the governor. That is a distinction that matters. Education is always an issue. Every governor talks about it. Unfortunately, governors don't have a lot of control over education, but that's important. I think transportation, affordable housing, air quality, especially along the Wasatch front as we continue to grow here. Those are the issues of the day that we're going to have to focus on. But I'm, I'm also the rural guy and, and I will always talk about what's happening in those counties that are disaffected.