Utah GOP governor’s race still tight between Cox, Huntsman

Jon Huntsman reacts after seeing the first results in the GOP primary race for governor at his headquarters, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. The hotly contested four-way GOP primary in the race for Utah governor ended Tuesday, but no winner was immediately declared as vote-counting continued during the coronavirus pandemic. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — In the Republican race for the first open Utah governor’s seat in more than a decade, well-known former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. on Wednesday was running narrowly behind Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who helped run the state’s coronavirus response.

The pandemic has made counting ballots more complicated. It also has shaped the primary by curtailing traditional campaigning and infecting Huntsman, who recovered shortly before Tuesday’s election.

Voting was done entirely by mail, which typically requires longer tally times for verification. Election officials also were quarantining ballots for 24 hours and allowed ballots to be postmarked on election day.

The GOP primary is often decisive in determining the eventual winner of the general election in conservative Utah. With that in mind, many liberal-leaning voters crossed party lines to register as Republicans, a factor that could help out Huntsman. He enjoyed wide popularity during a previous stint in the governor’s mansion.

The two other hopefuls conceded Wednesday: Greg Hughes, a former state House speaker and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, and real estate executive Thomas Wright, who positioned himself as an outsider.

Huntsman, who stepped down as governor in 2009 to serve as ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, touted his international experience during the campaign.

Cox, once a rare GOP critic of Trump, also has the backing of Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t running again.

An unusual number of Democratic and independent voters registered as Republicans so they could participate in the primary.

Democrats have already chosen law professor Chris Peterson as their gubernatorial candidate.

In other races, Republicans picked conservative former NFL player Burgess Owens over more moderate candidates to take on the state’s lone congressional Democrat, U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams.

Both parties’ primaries remained close for the Republican-dominated 1st Congressional District.

Incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes, meanwhile, had a comfortable lead over primary challenger David Leavitt.