As expected, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman resigned this week as U.S. ambassador to Russia and is returning to Utah with his wife, Mary Kaye, in early October.
Most local politicos believe Huntsman will, at a later date, announce he’s running for governor, again, in 2020.
Huntsman was a popular governor, winning two four-year terms, in 2004 and 2008.
However, in early 2009 he resigned the post to serve as ambassador to China under the Democratic administration of former President Barack Obama.
Fulfilling a long-held desire by his late father, billionaire/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., Huntsman Jr. ran for president in 2012, getting out of the race when it was clear Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination.
Republican president Donald Trump appointed Huntsman to the Russia slot early in his term.
Romney won a U.S. Senate seat from Utah last year, perhaps giving Huntsman the idea that he, too, could return to Utah and win a major office.
While well liked, Huntsman will have to answer the question: Why should Utahns give him another gubernatorial election when he resigned the post previously?
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, a Democrat, was ahead of former GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter in the 1988 election – with Bangerter closing on him – when Wilson was asked much the same question: For Wilson, having won three terms as mayor, resigned in his third term to become head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
That question of quitting an office voters had given you wasn’t the main reason Wilson ended up losing to Bangerter in a close three-way gubernatorial race, but it was part of it, I’m guessing.
Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, went on to win three gubernatorial races himself – first in a special election to serve out the final two years of Huntsman’s second term, then two full terms himself.
Utah has no term limits, but Herbert has decided not to run again in 2020, giving us an open seat. That opened the door for a number of GOP candidates, especially Huntsman who likely would not have challenged his old running mate.
While Herbert has been a popular governor, he may not have won the office if Huntsman hadn’t resigned, giving Herbert the power of incumbency in his elections.
Herbert is now supporting his own lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, in next year’s election.
Cox announced his candidacy several months ago, clearly wanting to get in the race and start campaigning before a Huntsman candidacy could close some political doors and tie up fund-raising.
Cox has been taking time off from being lieutenant governor this summer to travel the state – his aim to visit every one of the 241 cities and towns, something Cox said no major candidate has done before.
The problem for both Huntsman and Cox is that they are driving the “mainstream,” or even “moderate,” highway politically.
Cox has been a voice of compassion and reason in state government dealing with the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Huntsman recognized gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it. And he has won awards from local gay rights groups, he and Mary Kaye calling for acceptance of gay folks years ago.
With the Herbert promise that SB54, and its signature-gathering route to the GOP primary will remain intact next year, likely both Huntsman and Cox will gather the 28,000 signatures needed to make the June 2020 Republican primary, thus not risking the Republican state delegates booting them from the race.
Assuming Huntsman gets in the race, both men may be looking to their lieutenant governor picks to be from the party’s conservative wing, to shore up support there.
That is exactly what Huntsman did back in 2004, picking then-Utah County Commissioner Herbert as his running mate to help him with the right-wing delegates.
Huntsman came out first in the 2004 convention, pre-SB54 when getting delegate support was critical to making it to the primary.
And with his good name I.D., Huntsman easily won the GOP nomination and the final election.
In office, Huntsman had to prove himself, and he did, getting several major initiatives passed: Liquor reform (liquor-by-the-drink) and removing the state sales tax from unprepared food.
Huntsman also got the personal income tax rate moved to a flat-rate of 5 percent – meaning all Utahns pay that single rate – along with giving a huge tax cut along the way.
So, Huntsman did get a lot done in his four years and six-months in office.
Will Republican Utahns (only registered Republicans can vote in the closed primary) give a “mainstream” candidate the gubernatorial nomination next year?
If so, will it be Huntsman or Cox?
Should be one heck of a good race, for no doubt several noted conservative Republicans will get in the contest, also.