Jon Huntsman 03

Former Utah GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman is set to formally announce Thursday he’s running for governor next year, UtahPolicy.com learned Wednesday night.

Huntsman, 59, will make a swing through Southern Utah, announcing his intentions at Southern Utah University on Thursday and Dixie State University on Friday.

UtahPolicy.com is told Huntsman’s nascent campaign made thousands of phone calls to Republican delegates over the last few days inviting them to Thursday's and Friday’s events. The calls were intentionally vague and did not mention Huntsman’s forthcoming announcement. 

However, multiple sources with knowledge tell UtahPolicy.com that Huntsman will use these delegate meetings to officially launch his candidacy for governor next year.

The setting is significant, UtahPolicy.com is told, to show support for the former governor outside of the Wasatch Front and Salt Lake County.

There was some speculation that Huntsman would run as an independent instead of trying to fight his way through what promises to be a crowded Republican primary field. This week’s low-key announcement to GOP delegates makes it completely clear that he is committed to the Republican party.

UtahPolicy.com broke the story last spring that then-Russian Ambassador Huntsman was thinking of resigning his foreign post and return to Utah to run for the vacant seat he once held in 2020.

Huntsman joins a growing Republican field seeking the GOP nomination, which includes Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Councilmember Aimee Winder Newton and Provo businessman Jeff Burningham. Others considering running to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who is retiring at the end of his term, include former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, retiring Rep. Rob Bishop, Attorney General Sean Reyes, real estate executive Thomas Wright and businessman Spence Eccles.

Most, if not all, will likely take the signature-gathering route to the closed party primary in late June.

Those who plan that route will file their intent in early January and begin the process of gathering 28,000 signatures of voters who have registered as Republicans.

Some candidates may also appear before the late spring state Republican Party Convention, but delegates can’t eliminate a signature-qualified candidate, who automatically makes the primary ballot.

Huntsman, who won two, four-year terms -- starting in 2004, with a re-election in 2008 -- resigned his post the spring of 2009 to become ambassador to China. 

He left that post to run for president in 2012, getting out of the Republican field after doing poorly in early primaries.

He went to Russia when Republican President Donald Trump asked him to be the U.S. ambassador soon after taking office in 2017.

He and his wife, Mary Kaye, returned to Utah in early October, with associates of Huntsman indicating he would likely announce in early November.

It’s likely the governor’s race will cost upwards of $2 million. Huntsman is independently wealthy, one of six children of the late billionaire/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.

But Huntsman did just fine raising campaign cash in 2004 and 2008, and he likely could raise the funds without tapping into his own money.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, perhaps planning on Huntsman leaving Russia and running for his old office again, announced his candidacy in June and started on a wide-ranging tour of the state’s 248 cities and towns.

Polls have shown Huntsman and Cox are at the top of what could be a large GOP field -- with Huntsman leading slightly among all voters and Cox a bit ahead among GOP voters.

There is already a built-in wedge issue between Cox and Huntsman: Putting the state sales tax back on food.

Removing most of the 4.85 percent state sales tax was a hallmark of the early Huntsman administration, and supported by then Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.

Herbert became governor in 2009 when Huntsman resigned.

And now Herbert, who is not seeking re-election next year, supports the Tax Reform Task Force’s idea of putting the state portion of the food tax back on at the grocery store.

Cox, as Herbert’s second, most likely will agree to that move as part of an overall restructuring the state’s tax system.

And so, Huntsman and Cox will face off almost at once over that issue.

Huntsman was a popular governor, getting job approval ratings in high 60th percentile, even into the 70th percentile.

But late in his governorship, he and Mary Kaye took some moderate stands, especially on LBGTQ issues.

Huntsman, a member of the LDS Church, came out in favor of gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the personal contracts in June 2015. He and Mary Kaye received one of Equality Utah’s main gay rights awards for their support of the growing community in Utah.

All of which could prove an issue by right-wing groups and Utahns who won’t support Huntsman gubernatorial bid.

Huntsman is the older brother of Paul Huntsman, the owner/publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune.