The four Republican candidates for Utah governor got into a heated discussion about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and politicization of the public health crisis during a debate Monday evening.
This is the first open seat for governor since 2004, and Utah has not elected a Democratic governor since the 1980s.
Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has been the most vocal critic of the state’s response, called on Utah to lift all restrictions and fully reopen the economy.
Hughes said he originally supported staying at home, but changed his mind as he saw the curve flatten. The state has seen large spikes in cases over the past six days.
“At the end of the day, the Bill of Rights still apply,” Hughes said. “Our right to choose and our liberties to be Americans and do what we need to do to move forward in life — you can't take that away from us.”
Former Utah GOP Chair Thomas Wright also called for fewer restrictions and for more individual autonomy.
“We've seen Utahns repeatedly step up to the plate when asked to do so,” Wright said. “In this particular case, the proper role of government was to disseminate the information, to help us understand the seriousness of it … and then allow people to make choices based on their freedoms and liberties.”
If he were in office, former Gov. Jon Huntsman said he would have kept most of the state open.
“Every county is different in this state and we practically treated everybody the same,” Huntsman said. “Next time, let's keep 80% open and handle those differently who are most at risk.”
But Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is in charge of the state’s coronavirus task force, defended its actions.
“We were one of only seven states that didn't have a state wide shutdown,” he said. “The state of Utah has done a tremendous job in managing this response. Again, not just economically, but from a health standpoint as well … People have sacrificed and it has worked.”
Cox then turned to criticize his opponents for politicizing the response, but Wright argued it’s very appropriate for gubernatorial candidates to discuss the pandemic.
“The coronavirus is a really important topic,” Wright said. “It's the most challenging thing our state is facing. And so to talk about it in a gubernatorial race, in my opinion, is fair game.”
Wright, Huntsman and Hughes all turned on Cox, accusing him of politicizing the pandemic and using his office to campaign.
“I want to remind people where we've been for three months: 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 using the platform, using it as a bully pulpit,” Huntsman said. “This is absolutely absurd.”
Cox stood his ground and said Gov. Gary Herbert appointed him to head that task force, but that Herbert was ultimately in charge. He pushed back on the notion that he was taking advantage of his office.
“I gave up my campaign,” Cox said. “I even asked people not to donate to my campaign as we worked on this issue around the clock ... I was elected to do this job. I'm going to keep doing this job until the end.”
The primary election is June 30 and the voter registration deadline is June 19. Voting will take place entirely by mail, except in San Juan County. Seven counties will have drive-up options to pick up ballots.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson