Is it a winning political strategy, or dirty pool?
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign is making a push to get their supporters, who are not yet registered as Republicans, to change their voter status ahead of the June 30th primary election. That might be a smart play for the former governor who is seeking to return to the job he left in 2009 in order to take a job as the Ambassador to China.
Huntsman’s campaign is running digital ads on Facebook and Instagram featuring endorsements from prominent Utahns that close with “Voting begins June 9. Click here to register.” That ad leads to their campaign website that features a popup with a video from Huntsman’s daughter Abby explaining if Utahns want to vote in the June 30th primary, they must be registered as a Republican. There are also links for visitors to the webpage to check whether they are registered as a Republican or to change their registration to the GOP in order to participate. The Republican primary election is closed, meaning registered Republicans only can cast a ballot.
The strategy by Huntsman is clever, identifying potential supporters of his candidacy on social media, then getting them to take the crucial step of actually registering as a Republican voter so they can cast a ballot next month. Left unsaid, but heavily implied, is the fact that the primary election will likely determine the state’s next governor. “Make sure your vote counts,” says Huntsman’s daughter at the end of the video.
Abby Huntsman, spokesperson for her father’s campaign, tells UtahPolicy.com that they learned a hard lesson when they were attempting to qualify for the ballot through the state’s signature petition process. Thousands of signatures from their supporters were rejected because they were not registered as Republican voters. That’s an error they hope to remedy as ballots are set to start arriving in mailboxes in under two weeks.
“During the signature-gathering process, we found that many Utahns who vote Republican and thought they were registered Republicans, weren’t officially affiliated with the party,” she said in a statement. “Our message is aimed at encouraging them to make sure they get a ballot. If they plan to vote for a Republican governor in November, they should make sure they will get the ballot that decides who the nominee will be," she said.
If Huntsman is successful with that strategy, it could propel him to the Republican nomination. Polling shows him trailing Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox by 7 points among likely Republican primary voters ahead of the primary. But, among independent voters who are likely to change their registration to Republican and cast a ballot in the primary, Huntsman leads Cox by a whopping 17 points, 48-31%.
Outside of Huntsman’s efforts to get his own supporters who may not be Republicans to register with the GOP, there are others on social media who are pushing independents and even some Democrats to cast a ballot in the GOP primary in order to have a say in who leads the state for the next four or even 8 years. More than a generation has passed since Utah has elected a Democrat as governor. The last was the late Scott Matheson’s re-election in 1980. It’s almost certain that the unbroken streak of Republican control of the governor’s mansion will continue until 2024 at least.
It’s not clear how effective this kind of crossover voting behavior has been in the past, or could be this year. If Huntsman is successful in getting significant numbers of voters who are not traditionally Republicans to cast a ballot for him, it could turn the tide. Instead of a traditional head-to-head election with the winner needing a simple majority to capture the nomination, the Utah GOP primary is a four-way donnybrook, with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP chairman Thomas Wright in the field. The eventual winner could capture the nomination with fewer than 40 percent of the vote, so expanding the field of potential voters could be a winning strategy.
But, not all of the candidates see the tactic as fair play. Cox campaign spokesperson Heather Barney said people should make sure they’re joining the Republican party because they believe in what the party stands for.
"The Lt. Governor believes the Republican Party should be inclusive and welcoming to all. However, he is not in favor of using party affiliation to game the system or for personal political gain. He enthusiastically wants to grow the GOP, but hopes those who join become long-term party members,” she said.
Thomas Wright's campaign says they are not actively encouraging unaffiliated voters to register as Republicans ahead of the election. Greg Hughes' campaign did not respond to a request for comment.