SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday “there’s no deal been made” with gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright, but he acknowledged that he asked Wright to step aside and support his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Herbert said, however, he did not attempt to induce Wright to drop out of the governor’s race. There have been reports that the governor also urged the former Utah GOP chairman to run instead for Sen. Mike Lee’s seat in 2022 during their discussions.
But the governor answered “no and no” when asked whether he offered any inducements to Wright as well as if he believed he was exposed to a possible violation of a state law prohibiting rewarding someone for either staying or getting out of a political race.
He was not asked directly whether the upcoming Senate race was talked about. Later, the governor’s chief of staff, Justin Harding, answered “no and no. I’ll quote the governor,” when asked if the Senate seat was discussed and if Herbert wanted to see Lee replaced.
Yet Wright told the Deseret News Thursday the governor did suggest not only that he consider running for Lee’s seat in two years, but also recognize that Cox and his supporters would back him. But Wright said he didn’t view that as being offered a deal or any inducement to drop out.
“The way I recall the conversation is, ‘If you’re willing to get out of the race and support this candidate that I think is great, I think his supporters will remember that and it may be advantageous for you later. You might want to consider running for the Senate in 2022.’ That’s how it was pitched,” Wright said.
“We talked about Sen. Mike Lee’s seat and we also talked about other races. He talked about those in that context,” he said. “He said, ‘You know, if you drop out there’s these other options that are coming up.’ I think the words he used is, ‘You’re a young guy. You have time. You may have another opportunity.’”
Wright said he “never considered getting out of the race. Even when those words were being spoken, in my head, I was more convicted to stay in and to stand up for why I got in in the first place than I’ve ever been. So for me, I never entertained that thought. Not for one second.”
So he knows he’s a long shot but he thought he could win so he decided to stay the course. So there’s no deal been made.
–Gov. Gary Herbert
He said he didn’t view it as an inducement “because I wasn’t considering anything of the sort. I wasn’t looking for an exit strategy. I wasn’t looking for anything.”
Wright said if the governor said there was no deal, “I take him at his word.”
There are four Republicans running in the June 30 gubernatorial primary, Wright, Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes. Cox continued Thursday not to comment on the governor’s meetings with Wright, but Huntsman and Hughes have raised concerns.
Herbert told reporters during a COVID-19 briefing that he’s “an unabashed, enthusiastic supporter of Spencer Cox. I think he’d make a fantastic governor. I think we have a lot of good people running. The other three candidates are very capable and good also.”
The governor said he first went to Wright last year to solicit support for Cox.
“He thought about it,” Herbert said, but decided to run for governor himself.
“Again, he’s a capable guy. That’s not really a surprise to me. But he ran and I know that we all know how the process works and some fall by the wayside.”
Wright, he said, “didn’t do as well in convention. His poll numbers were down and so as happens typically with campaigns, it’s time to reevaluate and reassess. So I took that opportunity to talk to my friend Thomas Wright and see what his evaluation was, what was his plans going forward. And I suggested to him, as I’ve suggested in the last year, maybe you ought to consider supporting Spencer Cox for governor.”
Herbert said that’s “not an untypical thing as the field gets narrowed and winnowed and people then start endorsing others that maybe have a better chance of winning. We saw that four years ago with Donald Trump,” as well as in this year’s Democratic presidential race.
“We talked about that possibility. He was attentive. At the end of the day, he said, ‘I think I know I’m a long shot but I want to stay the course and continue on this journey.’ He said, ‘I think I can win.’ In fact, he used a golf analogy, ‘I think I can hit 10 birdies in a row,’“ the governor said.
“So he knows he’s a long shot but he thought he could win so he decided to stay the course,” Herbert said. “So there’s no deal been made.”
The governor, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office, said he and Wright have been friends for 14 years and have “talked about politics many times over the years. He’s talked about his desire to run for office and things within the Republican Party. ... We’ve had multiple, multiple conversations on other things.”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, spoke of “palace intrigue” in the race, where Cox and Huntsman have consistently led in polling. Cox, Huntsman and Wright all made the ballot by gathering voter signatures, but Cox along with Hughes was also advanced by GOP delegates.
“It’s fascinating because it makes it even more clear that the governor is eager to assist Cox and that obviously affects Huntsman’s prospects. The danger for Spencer Cox, though, is that these sorts of issues distract from his own message and the sense that he is earning the nomination on his own.”
The political science professor said he doubts this will be a deciding factor for primary voters.
“Thomas Wright has an uphill climb, at least according to recent polling, and I don’t think this helps him in any way,” Karpowitz said, adding that it’s possible that the person who benefits most may be Hughes, “who can use it to argue that it’s time for a new team in the executive branch.”
Wright blamed another campaign he declined to identify for leaking details of what he continues to describe as a private conversation to “spread a rumor I was getting out of the race. It wasn’t true. It was hurtful to me and my campaign.”
In the end, though, Wright said he believes he’ll benefit.
“I think it’s totally proven what I have been saying about handing the baton between just a few people over a 16-year period isn’t healthy. I think it’s also proven that we need a new person in the governor’s seat. We need to reset things,” he said. “I think it’s been a big positive for me in that it’s exactly what I have been saying is the problem.”