Reese: Utah’s 2020 GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Have A Rocky Primary Ahead


Former Governor Jon Huntsman speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida. (Courtesy Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons)

By Isaac Reese, Opinion Writer

As the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries are heating up, so too are several state-wide races. Most notable to Utahns is Utah’s 2020 gubernatorial race. An announcement by Jon Huntsman’s campaign to reclaim the governorship has rattled the prospects of the other Republican primary candidates. Huntsman has joined Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Councilmember Aimee Winder Newton, businessman Jeff Burningham and fringe-candidate Jason Christensen. The race between these five is still in its early stages, but it surely looks like it will inevitably become nasty as each of them must appeal to strongly conservative Republicans to get the votes they need for the nomination.

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox has been seen as the frontrunner of the race up until Huntsman announced his campaign. Reacting to Huntsman’s announcement, Cox tweeted a photo depicting the biblical tale of David and Goliath with a subtweet comparing himself to David and Huntsman to Goliath. Cox himself has always painted himself as the rural family man who just happened to stumble into politics — at least that’s how he always portrayed it when I went go on high school field trips to the Capitol. For someone who stumbled into politics, he quickly climbed his way up from county commissioner to Lt. Governor. As he aims to hold the highest office in the state, Cox will have to shed his nice-guy image and pretend to be more conservative than he really is in order to gain the nomination.

So far, the majority of criticism in the race has been directed toward Huntsman from his fellow party members. After his first term as governor, Huntsman jumped between two ambassadorships and a presidential run without ever returning to reside in Utah. This is certainly a fair critique of Huntsman, but few members of the Utah GOP have similarly criticized Senator Mitt Romney, a former Governor of Massachusetts who has only worked for the interests of elites and not the everyday Utahn. Still, claiming a candidate is not “Utahn” enough is rooted in regionalism and ignorance.

Speaking of ignorance, Newton will have to hold her own while fighting against sexism. She is the only candidate to have a section on her website titled “How will you balance family?” a sexist question that none of the male candidates will ever have to face. There is historical sexism faced by female candidates in Utah’s Republican Party. Former Governor Olene Walker, Utah’s first and only female governor, had to deal with a shady and controversial gubernatorial nomination process in which she was challenged by Huntsman. The 2020 Republican primary will similarly be an uphill battle for Newton, but she seems to know this and is already gearing up for the fight.

Jeff Burningham, local businessman, is running and trying to create the image of the successful tech-bro that will innovative Utah in a conservative way. Most of the public’s political knowledge of Burningham is limited to when he declared his candidacy for governor. He is heavily involved with Brigham Young University’s business department and is using his business background to appeal to voters. Burningham will have to work hard to break through to the inner Republican circles.

Fringe-candidate Jason Christensen has run for multiple offices and he has lost every time. He caused controversy during a 2016 bid for state Senate when he commented on a gay teen’s suicide, saying “Yes this is sad, and hopefully God will have mercy on both sins that this boy committed. The sins of homosexuality and the sins of murder.” Christensen may not seem like a strong representative of the Republican Party, but since the rise of the Tea Party, the Utah GOP has not recruited their best and brightest.

Utah Republicans will have a bloodbath ahead of them in 2020. Candidates are already throwing jabs, and it is only the beginning of what will be a long and heated primary. Independents and Democrats in Utah will be forced to sit on the sidelines as the Republican candidates fight to become the caucus’s “conservative choice” for Governor. Their litmus test will hinder the process of selecting the candidate that truly represents the people, and many Utahns will be ignored by the Republicans who are so used to dominating the political field.


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