SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who just returned to the state after two years in Moscow as U.S. ambassador to Russia, confirmed to KSL on Tuesday that he is “going to take a good look” at making what would be his third run for governor.
Huntsman’s first public acknowledgment that he is considering joining the already crowded GOP race to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert follows his call in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal posted Monday for Washington to re-examine the sanctions imposed on Russia.
Titled, “American Needs Dialogue With Moscow,” the opinion piece picked up in news reports published here and abroad “was my farewell message, that only someone in my position could make,” Huntsman told KSL, adding that he “felt an obligation to make a few observations.”
Republicans already in the governor’s race or close to making a decision about running include Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, businessman Jeff Burningham, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
So far, no Democratic candidates have emerged. Utah has not had a Democratic governor since the mid 1980s.
Herbert is not seeking reelection after serving as governor since 2009. Then Utah’s lieutenant governor, Herbert assumed the office when Huntsman stepped down shortly after being elected to a second term as governor to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.
Huntsman, who made a brief bid for the White House in 2012, served in Russia under President Donald Trump while the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia were under an investigation that led to multiple charges related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including against Russian intelligence officers.
In April, a source told KSL that Huntsman has not ruled out a third run for Utah governor after first winning the office in 2004 and being re-elected in 2008. Some have suggested another term as governor would keep Huntsman “in the political game” for another key post in a future presidential administration.
“We’re going to take a good look at it,” Huntsman said Tuesday when asked about running for governor.
Before leaving Moscow last Thursday, Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, said in a joint post to her Instagram account that the end of their time in Russia was “not as elegant as the closing curtains at Bol’shoy Theater, but worthy of awards for best drama nonetheless!”
The post described beginning their diplomatic tour “with the bottom falling out of America’s relationship with Russia — one that has seen only marginal improvements since. We’ll never know how bad things could have been, but for the efforts of many tireless, courageous and dedicated public servants.”
Sanctions have been imposed on Russia as well as Russian officials and businesses, for activities including the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and meddling in the United States’ 2016 presidential election. In late September, new economic sanctions were imposed to punish attempts by Russia to influence the 2018 midterm elections.
“We have practiced the same approach toward Russia so long that is has now become reflexive — and detrimental to our long-term interests,” Huntsman wrote in the op-ed, warning that the United States, “acting alone, won’t succeed in changing (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s) behavior or that of the Russian government.”
He said sanctions have become “our go-to foreign policy tool to admonish misbehavior,” imposed against nearly 850 Russian individuals and entities. “It’s easy to initiate sanctions, but it has become politically perilous to discuss removing them,” Huntsman said.
Many of the sanctions, he said, “may be having the desired effect and should be maintained. But not all.” Saying it’s time to discuss what’s working and what’s not, Huntsman warned, “Blithely implementing sanctions without making sure they fit into a larger strategy of engagements costs us the ability to shape outcomes.”
While he did not offer specifics, he said sanctions that are targeted and “smartly applied serve a purpose, but ultimately it is in our national interest to want more than to see some Russian officials squirm. Our goal should be a Russia that is both a better partner and a more responsible citizen.”
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Huntsman’s op-ed should be viewed as “a statement of best practices from an expert that has been in the field and is closest to the issues. It does not appear he’s taking a shot at anyone specifically, but he understands big power politics.”
Scott Cooper, a BYU political science professor whose focus includes Soviet politics, said Huntsman’s call to reconsider sanctions may fall on deaf ears.
“I don’t think it’s likely to change anyone’s minds at all. I just think positions on Russia are very hardened and have been over the last five years, given Russia’s behavior,” Cooper said. But he said he expects Trump to be pleased, since the president has tried to foster better relations with Russia even before his election.
Cooper said Huntsman “skims very lightly over” Russia’s transgressions, avoiding “the huge kind of Pandora’s box with interference in U.S. elections,” such as allegations that military aid for Ukraine was used to pressure the country to investigate Trump’s chief Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden.
He said the sanctions issue likely won’t have an impact on Huntsman’s political future in Utah, either.
“I don’t know that Utah voters are really enthusiastic about why we can’t have better relations with Russia,” Cooper said. “That doesn’t seem like a campaign slogan.”
Perry, who served as head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development under Huntsman, said U.S.-Russia relations isn’t the type of topic that comes up in the context of a governor’s race.
“You do not typically get these kinds of statements from someone who is potentially running for governor of a state. But you don’t usually have a candidate with this kind of world experience,” Perry said. Huntsman, he added, is “telling us an important lesson he learned, whether he runs for governor or not.”
Last Saturday, the Huntsmans attended Equality Utah’s annual Allies Gala, billed as the largest LGBTQ fundraising event in Utah. As governor, Huntsman supported civil unions for gay and lesbian couples and was an early Republican supporter of gay marriage.
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said Huntsman “really led the way among Republicans to really open their hearts to our community.” And although the governor’s race didn’t come up at the gala, Williams said, “When his name was mentioned, the crowd roared.”