SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes reported raising nearly $500,000 for his anticipated run for governor in 2020, even though he has yet to formally announce he’s in what’s likely to be a crowded race for the Republican nomination.
Gov. Gary Herbert is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office and his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, has been running since May for the state’s top post, which hasn’t been held by a Democrat for 35 years. Businessman Jeff Burningham declared his candidacy a month ago.
Other Republicans eyeing the race include former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., whose resignation as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump becomes effective Thursday; Rep. Rob Bishop, who is not seeking another term in Congress; Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton; and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
Hughes, who did not run for reelection in 2018 after serving eight terms in the Utah House, has been collecting campaign cash since May through the leadership political action committee he created four years ago after becoming speaker.
“We are very encouraged by the bipartisan financial support Greg Hughes has received for his PAC,” said Greg Hartley, a political operative who served as Hughes’ chief of staff in the Utah Legislature and is now working as an unpaid campaign adviser.
Among the PAC contributions in his latest financial disclosure to the state are $125,000 from current House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; $100,000 from Democratic developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner; and $75,000 from Kevin Garn, a former GOP legislative leader who resigned in 2010 amid controversy.
“I get it. It is a lot of money,” Schultz said. However, he says he looks at his six-figure contribution in the context of the more than $500,000 in a year he said he gives to political and other causes. “It’s not anything more than a simple donation, and I don’t expect anything out of it.”
Schultz said he’s been urging Hughes to run for governor for a few years, citing his work as speaker on the homeless issue in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood and on crafting a compromise on medical marijuana between supporters and opponents of last year’s ballot initiative.
“There’s a lot of the candidates that are talking about getting in the field that I have a lot of respect for,” he said. “Having the opportunity to serve under Speaker Hughes and watch how he’s brought people together on big, controversial issues to solve a problem, from my experience, that’s what I like.”
Gardner said he’s “not a close friend of Greg’s, I am an admirer.” When Hughes approached him for help in the governor’s race, Gardner said he did have to put aside their differences over the president. “I don’t like Trump and I have a hard time that Greg does,” he said. “But I admire the way he gets things done.”
Gardner said he supports Democratic candidates, including Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, but doesn’t see anyone in the party who’s ready to run for governor.
A governor, he said, should be someone who can build consensus among state lawmakers on education, climate change, public lands and other issues facing Utah.
Gardner said when he sat down with Hughes, “I thought, here’s a guy that was the speaker, that’s close to the Legislature, that can help us deal with some of the hard issues. It’s just as simple as that. I thought, ‘Well, I’d at least help him get started and get going.’ Where it goes, I don’t know.”
Garn, a former House majority leader who made headlines in 2010 when he confessed on the House floor that he had shared a hot tub with a teenage girl eight years earlier, said he believes Hughes is “one of the best leaders I’ve seen in the state of Utah.”
Current House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he gave Hughes $15,000 because he has “zero question” that he’s ready to do “hard things” that are in the state’s best interest. “I’ve seen him in action. He has passion for the state. He works tirelessly for the state.”
While financial disclosures to the state elections office were due Monday for political action committees, declared candidates for governor do not have to file statements until the start of next year, although contributions do need to be posted within 30 days of receipt.
Cox, the first to get in the governor’s race, collected more than $415,000 through Sept. 4, including a $50,000 contribution from Herbert, while Burningham had received nearly $600,000 by Sept. 12, according to their most recent contribution disclosures.
Asked about Hughes’ fundraising total, Burningham’s campaign manager, Adrielle Herring, said, “Well, that’s a good start. We’re about to clear $1 million.”
Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, said, “We’re very proud to be funded by more than 1,100 unique Utahns — the most of any Republican gubernatorial candidate in state history. Our grassroots donations add up quickly and it is a clear display of the lieutenant governor’s widespread support amongst Republican voters.”
Both Cox’s and Burningham’s campaigns declined to disclose at this point how much money they have to spend after expenses. Hughes reported just over $444,000 in cash on hand, after raising more than $471,000 and spending about $27,000.
Hartley called the contributions to Hughes “significant given the fact that he is not an elected official, not an announced candidate, does not have a fundraising committee, has not held a single fundraising event, and does not yet have any paid staff.”
Hughes is expected to get in the race before the end of the year, but Hartley said the “early support establishes a strong foundation as he continues to explore a race for governor, and we look forward to seeing the results as we continue raising money without any significant spending.”