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CEDAR CITY — Jon Huntsman Jr. is running for Utah governor.
The former governor confirmed to KSL NewsRadio Thursday morning he will seek a return to the state's top office.
"This is the first time that we are here to say that we are so very honored and humbled to announce my candidacy for governor of the greatest state in America," he told KSL's Amanda Dickson and Tim Hughes on Thursday. "We hope those words resonate."
Utah Policy originally reported Wednesday evening Huntsman was expected to announce his candidacy Thursday. He told KSL NewsRadio he had hoped to break the news himself on Thursday morning, but it didn't work out that way.
Huntsman is scheduled to deliver a speech Thursday at noon on “Utah and the World” at Southern Utah University’s Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service, named for another former governor, Mike Leavitt, then meet with reporters.
He will hope to return to the office he left a decade ago to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, later running for president and eventually joining the Trump administration as the nation’s top diplomat in Russia.
"I think the years ahead are going to be absolutely critical and the choices that we make are going to shape the future for years to come," Hunstman told KSL NewsRadio. "That’s what governors do: They look into the future, they anticipate what our needs are going to be, they assemble the best people they can find and they make choices that aren’t immediate, but they resonate for a very long time."
He added that his decision to run comes from a commitment to public service that is a "core value" in his family and community.
Huntsman joins a so far solely Republican field of candidates in the 2020 race that already includes Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, with former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop among those looking at a run.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who has held the office since Huntsman’s departure in 2009, is not seeking reelection.
Cox, who looks to be one of Huntsman's top competitors in the race, tweeted a photo of the biblical David and Goliath on Thursday morning in response to Huntsman's announcement.
In an interview with KSL NewsRadio Thursday morning, Cox pointed out that he and Huntsman come from very different backgrounds. While Huntsman's family just donated $150 million to the University of Utah, Cox said he recently donated $150 to The Road Home homeless shelter but nobody noticed.
Cox also noted that he has received 125 endorsements from mayors of cities and towns across the state of Utah. His campaign has pledged to visit all 240 cities and towns in Utah ahead of the 2020 election, and he's visited 198 so far, he said.
"I think that’s a real difference in how we’ll be able to match up (with Huntsman's campaign)," Cox said Thursday. "We have people all across the state who believe in our vision and support what we’re trying to accomplish."
Cox also questioned Huntsman's conservatism, citing the latest polling. In a Salt Lake Chamber poll last month, Cox had a narrow lead over Huntsman among Republican voters at 34% to Huntsman's 30%.
However, Huntsman held the lead among all likely voters, 33% to 26%, according to the poll.
"I'm assuming (Huntsman is) running as a Republican, I'm not sure he said that yet," Cox said.
Cox added that conservative values have gotten Utah to where it is today and "will continue to propel us forward into the future."
"He'll make me a better candidate," Cox said of Huntsman. "It's an exciting time for Utahns, politics is at its best when we do have robust debate, when we have alternatives and choices."
Burningham said he welcomes Huntsman into the race.
"Utah deserves a robust debate in this election," he said Thursday on KSL NewsRadio. "It is a critical time in Utah right now."
Burningham said the race includes a handful of career politicians, but he is an "innovative outsider" who doesn't look like the other candidates.
"This isn’t about yesterday’s ideas or today’s status quo; to me, it is all about the future of Utah," Burningham said. "Where do we want to go and how do we stay on top. I think it’s critical that we take Utah to the next level and preserve our quality of life."
Winder Newton also made an appearance on KSL NewsRadio on Thursday following Huntsman's announcement. She said she thinks the race is anyone's game at this point.
"The more people that get into a race like this the better," she said. "It's a chance for us to have robust discussions about the future of Utah."
Winder Newton said her experience in local government and as a business owner will set her apart from the field in the election.
"I'm excited about our candidacy because I feel I bring something to the table that other candidates don’t," she said. "I don’t want us to be California. We’ve got such a great state, and for me, this is about looking forward. This is about how we’re going to prepare the next generation."
Besides ambassador to Russia and China, Huntsman has had other federal posts, including as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, before first being elected governor in 2004. He easily won reelection in 2008 with nearly 78% of the vote, but stepped down less than a year into his second term after Democratic President Barack Obama named him U.S. ambassador to China.
After two years in Beijing, Huntsman returned to launch a short-lived 2012 bid for president that ended after a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire, behind now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee, and Ron Paul, then a Texas congressman.
Just weeks after his return to Utah from Russia, Huntsman enters the race with advantages over the other candidates. A recent poll for the Salt Lake Chamber had Huntsman as the favorite among a list of candidates for governor, with 33% of all likely voters saying they’d choose him if the election were today.
Derek Miller, managing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development under Huntsman and now Salt Lake Chamber president and CEO, said the poll results, which also gave Huntsman higher favorability ratings than any other Utah political figure, speaks to the lasting impact of his accomplishments as governor a decade ago, particularly when it came to economic development and what was the state’s last sweeping tax reform effort.
Huntsman came across to voters then “as somebody who cared a lot about our state, and was willing to make personal sacrifices in order to serve in public office,” Miller said, and his running again for governor would “shake up the race significantly, I think, Day 1... you can’t understate how it’s going to shake up the race.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it’s not clear how voters will view Huntsman’s absence from the state, especially in what could be a crowded Republican primary. Since Huntsman left, elections have changed to allow candidates to get on a primary ballot by gathering voter signatures, bypassing the traditional party caucus and convention system.
Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann said Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who lived in Utah while running the 2002 Winter Olympics, faced pushback from some Republican voters when he was forced into a Senate primary against a little-known state lawmaker.
“Romney’s task was a little easier,” Cann said. “I think Huntsman will have to navigate this more carefully than did Romney simply because the field of challengers is deeper in this election. We’ve seen the skepticism from Utahns before,” Cann said, but for Huntsman, “it feels like it could be a little harder to overcome.”
Contributing: Amanda Dickson and Tim Hughes, KSL NewsRadio