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Utah's Pandemic Response Has Divided Republicans In Race For Governor

Photo of four men standing behind podiums on a stage
Pool photo
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participate in the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate at the PBS Utah studio on June 1.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a politically divisive issue across the country, and in Utah it’s become a wedge issue in the Republican race for governor. 

While running for governor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has led Utah’s Coronavirus Community Task Force since early March. That leadership role has made him one of the targets of criticism from other candidates who take issue with the social distancing measures the state has implemented."

“At the end of the day, the Bill of Rights still [applies],” former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said, explaining his opposition to the state’s social distancing measures, during a debate earlier this month. 

“The proper role of government was to disseminate the information … and then allow people to make choices based on their freedoms and liberties,” former Utah Republican Party Chair Thomas Wright added. 

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., suggested that, next time, the state should “keep 80% open and handle those differently who are most at risk.”

Cox, however, has defended the state’s response. 

“We are one of only seven states that didn't have a statewide shelter in place or lockdown order,” Cox told KUER. “But not only that, our health outcomes are better than other states as we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the nation.” 

Nationally, members of different parties are usually the ones who dispute how to respond to the pandemic. In Utah, Republican candidates are disagreeing with other Republicans — and that's not surprising, said University of Utah political science professor Phillip Singer.

“We happen to see the focus by each of these Republican candidates to be on ‘How did we respond to COVID-19?’” Singer said. “If there wasn't this pandemic each of these candidates would be highlighting policy disputes with the candidates just because that's just that's the name of the game.”

He said, because Utah is so heavily red, it makes sense that public opinion on the state’s pandemic response is split between more moderate and more conservative Republicans. 

Charlotte Cantwell is a Cox supporter from Providence. She said she’s been impressed with the state’s response.

“I would have preferred that we would have taken these measures more seriously,” Cantwell said. “But had that been mandated, I think it might have done more harm than good.” 

But West Jordan voter Desiree Frederick said the state should have opened up more quickly. 

“We've got a lot of people out of a job,” Frederick said. “I think they needed to look at a broader base of where reopening could have happened.”

According to a recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University, 79% of likely Republican voters approve of the state’s pandemic response. 

The primary election is on June 30 and the winner will face Democrat Chris Peterson in November.

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

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