The four Republican candidates vying to be Utah’s next governor and voters alike waited Tuesday evening for preliminary election results to roll in.
Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner estimated that it would take days for election officials to determine winners in Tuesday’s primary races.
Utah County Elections Director Rozan Mitchell said that, due to changes to the elections process made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “it is very likely that it could be two to three weeks before we know who won the governor’s race.”
The crowded gubernatorial race includes GOP candidates Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah Republican Party Chair Thomas Wright.
Preliminary results released by the state elections office at 10:09 p.m. Tuesday showed Cox and Huntsman with early leads over Hughes and Wright.
The first batch of results showed Cox having 137,137 votes, 37.1%, while Huntsman had 129,099 votes, 35%. Meanwhile, Hughes had 20.1% of votes and Wright had 7.7%.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Cox said in an interview Tuesday night. “We feel really good that we had so much support from across the state of Utah. We know that there are a lot of ballots yet to be counted, but we’re excited, and we’ll be watching very closely.”
“The early numbers are encouraging but this election will be too close to call until every vote is counted,” Huntsman said in a written statement. “That’s the beauty of the American election system. We look forward to tracking the final results over the next several days.”
Cox’s public presence has increased in recent months with his role as head of the Utah Coronavirus Task Force, which has prompted both praise and criticism of the lieutenant governor.
Cox told reporters on a video conference call Tuesday afternoon that he initially planned to focus his campaign around education. That changed when the pandemic hit, he said, leading the candidate to switch gears and focus on how Utah can recover from the global health crisis.
“I think our initial impulse is to recover to where we were before,” Cox told the Daily Herald in a previous interview on May 1. “But I started thinking, what if we could recover to something better? What lessons are we learning through this crisis over the past six weeks and how can we use those lessons to recover to something that’s even better than we were before, and that is, how do we make ourselves more resilient?”
The Republican candidate’s preparation plan includes creating a stockpile of critical medical supplies and embracing telehealth and telework.
After serving as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, Huntsman went on to become the United States Ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama and later as U.S. Ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump.
Huntsman’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan includes “leverag(ing) existing capital and bring(ing) fresh resources to our market,” minimizing “unnecessary government delay of industry expertise” and creating tax deferment programs and payroll tax incentives.
“Whoever is in the Governor’s Office in 2021 will — at best — inherit a recovering economy,” Huntsman’s campaign website states. “Getting our economy back up and running is no small task; this is no time for on-the-job training in the Governor’s Office.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Huntsman took to Twitter to remind Utah County voters that they still had time to postmark their ballots.
“There has been some confusion about this in Utah County,” Huntsman tweeted just before noon. “If you live in Utah County, please know that you still have today to postmark your ballot.”
Hughes, who served in the Utah State Legislature representing House District 51 until 2018, has criticized Cox for Utah’s COVID-19 response, which he said included “unconstitutional shutdown orders” that hurt Utahns.
“The COVID-19 state of emergency declared by the governor of the State of Utah has made clear that those in charge of our state government lack fundamental understanding of the rights of the People, as enshrined in the Constitution of the United States,” Hughes said on his campaign website.
Wright’s campaign has focused on investing in public education, lowering tuition in higher education and “getting government out of the way of business” to “keep Utah’s economy flourishing.”
A June 22 Utah Policy and KUTV poll showed Cox and Huntsman as the frontrunners heading into Tuesday. Cox has picked up endorsements from Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. Huntsman has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Scott Anderson, president of Zions Bank.
The official winner of Tuesday’s primary, which won’t be determined by state election officials for days or possibly weeks, will compete against Democrat candidate Chris Peterson, a business law professor at the University of Utah, and running mate Karina Brown, who is president of the nonprofit Friends of the Cache County Children’s Justice Center Board.
“The people of Utah are ready for a change,” Peterson said in a press release Tuesday. “Whoever our opponent is, Karina and I are excited to meet them head on.”