Utah governor race has conservative coronavirus fault lines

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In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., speaks during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City. Huntsman Jr. has one of the most recognizable names in the state as a former popular governor and son of a billionaire philanthropist. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Donald Trump to return to Utah and make a run and reclaiming his seat. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

SALT LAKE CITY – A few months ago, the crowded contest for the Republican nomination in Utah’s first wide-open governor's race in more than a decade was about how to manage the state’s breakneck growth. Now, it's showcasing conservative fault lines over the coronavirus crisis response and what recovery looks like.

The four-way June 30 vote will be a test of whether the conservative state’s approach to the pandemic can withstand criticism from the right and if a well-known political figure can still capture voters’ attention during a time of deep uncertainty.

Jon Huntsman Jr. has one of the most recognizable names in the state as a former popular governor and son of a billionaire philanthropist. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump to run for his old job.

Then the pandemic hit, putting campaign rallies and door-knocking strictly off limits.

“We've been locked up in our homes where the only people able to campaign and politicize have been those in the governor’s office,” he said during a Monday-night debate, alluding to the fact that one of his rivals has been out front in the response.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, known for his earnest grin and quirky Twitter feed, argued that he's been doing his job by leading the state's coronavirus task force. He touted the approach of his boss, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who made his stay-home order voluntary and moved early to reopen the economy. “We've done it ... as well or better than any other state in this nation,” he said.

Herbert is backing Cox after deciding not to run again. Recent polls have pointed at the lieutenant governor pulling ahead.

That's made Cox a target of criticism from his three opponents, who blasted no-bid state contracts and health questionnaires pushed to residents' phones. Real estate executive Thomas Wright, who has positioned himself as the race's outsider, argued that “the proper role of government was to disseminate the information ... and then allow people to make choices based on their freedoms and liberties.”