SALT LAKE CITY – As a once enormously popular governor, scion of a prominent family and ambassador under two presidents to America’s biggest global rivals, Jon Huntsman Jr. should be a political force to be reckoned with. But his comeback attempt fell short in a GOP primary as he contended with a crushing pandemic and a fresh-faced opponent.
Huntsman was narrowly beaten Monday by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who had heightened visibility as he helped the state response to the coronavirus while also pitching himself as an earnest leader with rural Utah roots.
Huntsman, meanwhile, dealt with his own bout with the virus even as he faced conservative skepticism about his return and tried to capture voter attention during both the pandemic and national protests against racial injustice.
“Voters are upset, they’re looking for change,” said Tim Chambless, a political-science professor at the University of Utah. “In a sense, Jon Huntsman Jr. is a symbol of the past.”
Cox’s conservative brand, bolstered by a quirky-yet-wholesome Twitter feed, helped him capture more Republican voters in deep red parts of the state. His onetime criticism of President Donald Trump and sympathetic stance on LGBTQ rights meant he didn’t scare off voters who make Utah a rare conservative bastion ambivalent about the president.
A very early start to his campaign also proved fortuitous in hindsight, allowing Cox, 44, to clock months visiting voters before the coronavirus hit.
Huntsman, meanwhile, was serving as U.S. ambassador in Russia under Trump as his main competitor motored into tiny towns in his bright green campaign bus.
Huntsman, 60, had just a few months before the pandemic hit to answer questions about why he was returning and what he would bring to the job after stepping down in 2009 to serve as ambassador to China under Democratic then-President Barack Obama.