Last week, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox became the first to announce his candidacy for governor of Utah in next year’s election. KUER spoke with the 43-year-old Republican about his decision to run and the tone he hopes to set for the 2020 race.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicole Nixon: It has been no secret for about a year now that you have been thinking about running for governor. When did you decide that that is something that you wanted to do?
Spencer Cox: It was probably just a little more than a month ago. My wife and I — our family — had been talking about it. We had originally decided to wait until our son, who's serving as a missionary in Africa (for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) came home in June, and then our church changed the rules and we were able to call him every week. That really changed things for us because he's been along for that journey. And after a lot of talking to people, and encouragement from the governor and others — and a lot of prayer — we decided that this is what we were supposed to do for now, and that's what we're doing.
NN: You've talked a bit about how part of the apprehension for running is how negative campaigns are. Do you see that as a symptom of the Trump era? Is it a problem in Utah?
SC: I think it's not a symptom of the Trump era. I think Trump is a result of this era. It's something that's been happening for a long time in both parties. We've seen negative campaigning, and I don't just mean Republicans against Democrats. I mean Democrats against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans. We certainly saw it in 2018 in the 4th (Congressional) District race here in our state. And it's a problem. I think it's terrible for our country. I think we're more divided than we've been — and I said this — at any time since the Civil War. And that's not just me — political scientists will tell you that. There are lots of really good people who should be in office and aren't only because they don't want anything to do with campaigns, and that's not good for our country.
NN: You are seen as a very moderate Republican and you seem to enjoy support from a pretty broad political spectrum. I even saw some Democrats tweet that they might support you in 2020 and express excitement that you are running. But you are a conservative. Even at the GOP convention a few weeks ago you hinted support for stricter abortion policies. How do you walk that moderate line over the next year? Can you please both sides?
SC: You cannot please everyone, and I'm not going to try to do that. That's not my job, and that's not who I am. It's interesting. I think sometimes we confuse kindness and moderation, and that's an indictment of my party — where we are right now, that people see somebody who tries to be kind and listen to others and thinks, 'Oh, well, he must be a moderate.' I do have some very conservative views, and I will be sharing those.
But here's the difference. You don't have to bridge that gap and please everybody. But what you have to do is you have to be honest with people. I think it's one of the reasons that Trump was successful. He is who he said he was from the very beginning. I believe you can be that with kindness and empathy and love for people, and that's what we're going to try to do. But I'm sure there are some people who will say, 'Well I can't support him because of his conservative views,' and I'm OK with that. Again, I don't expect everyone to vote for me, but I hope that even if you don't agree with 100% of my politics, you know that you can trust me, and that I'll be honest with you, and that I will listen to you.
NN: What are your thoughts on abortion? Do you think states like Utah and Georgia and Missouri are right to go in that direction to try to restrict it further?
SC: I've unapologetically ... always been pro-life. Now that means different things to different people and we can argue about when life begins. But the viability is a big deal for me — that once you have a viable fetus then abortion should be restricted significantly. I think Utah's recent laws do a better job of that than, say, Alabama's or others, but again, this is a very tenuous issue. I'm not super excited about passing unconstitutional bills, and the Alabama bill, as Governor (Kay) Ivey said, is clearly unconstitutional and unenforceable. But it is a chance to challenge and see what the Supreme Court says there. I do think that states should play a greater role in that decision, but for me viability has always been a really important marker.
NN: Are you going to be gathering signatures to secure a spot on a primary ballot?
SC: I was a huge defender of the caucus-convention system, and then as lieutenant governor I had to defend S.B. 54 — that's part of the job, I don't get to pick and choose which laws to defend — and defended it successfully. That's put me at a severe disadvantage with the caucus-convention crowd, who's mad at me for doing that.
But look, this was really an easy call for us. We will be — just like Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert—we will be doing both because I do believe it's important to go through the caucus-convention system. There's an intensity there that every candidate should experience. But at the same time, getting 28,000 signatures from registered Republicans in the state is no easy task. You have to have a broad base of support, real grassroots support and that's important for me as well. So we will be, at least, attempting to do both and I believe we'll be successful in both.