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SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is headed for the Governor's Mansion, grabbing nearly 63% of the vote over Democratic challenger Chris Peterson's 33%, results show Tuesday night in the gubernatorial race.
Cox thanked supporters, friends and family during a virtual event from his hometown of Fairview in Sanpete County, saying the GOP needs to transform itself into the party of civil rights and the disadvantaged.
He vowed to be the people's governor.
"I am not governor of the Republican Party, I am the governor of Utah. I represent all of us," he said, flanked by his wife and children. "No matter what your race, creed or religion, no matter what you believe, or who you are, we care deeply about you."
Peterson offered his concession late Tuesday night.
"I'm proud that we ran an ethical race focused on policy issues. This campaign was about building a new beginning for the Democratic Party in Utah. My name was on the ballot, but this was never about me. It was about fighting to make a positive difference in the daily lives of working people," a statement from Peterson read.
Peterson also offered praise for Cox.
"I thank my opponent, Lieutenant Governor Cox, for running a respectful campaign, and I wish him the very best in leading our state towards a brighter future."
During his victory speech, Cox also praised his opponent for waging a hard fought campaign.
In fact, the race gained national attention in the final weeks after the two candidates created a public service announcement promoting civility in politics. The pair said they hoped Utah could set an example for the rest of the country in a divisive election year.
Peterson, a University of Utah law professor and first-time candidate who worked on consumer protection issues in President Barack Obama's administration, has been facing an uphill battle in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic governor for four decades.
It was the Republican primary election, not the contest between Cox and Peterson, that drew the most attention to the race for the first open governor's seat since the late Gov. Norm Bangerter decided not to run for a third term in 1992. Gov. Gary Herbert, who chose not to seek reelection, has held the office for more than a decade.
Herbert's lieutenant governor started running early, but soon faced a long list of opponents. Some, including Salt Lake County Councilwoman Amy Winder Newton, lost their bid for the GOP nomination at the party's state convention in April.
Four candidates advanced to the June 30 Republican primary ballot — Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright. The top issue in the primary was the state's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, then led by Cox.
The four-way race ended up being close enough between Cox and Huntsman that it wasn't called for nearly a week. There was an unsuccessful effort to get Huntsman, who returned to Utah last year from Moscow where he served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, to run as a write-in candidate in the general election.
Peterson pushed Cox hard on Utah's response to COVID-19 and started a call in July for stricter measures including a statewide mask mandate to be taken. The lieutenant governor, however, largely held off campaigning for the general election until after Labor Day.
There was some back and forth over whether Cox had to go along with Herbert's approach to stopping the spread of the virus by relying on Utahn to do what's best. The final debate between Cox and Peterson focused on their differences over dealing with the virus but stood out for being so civil.
Promising "differences people will notice," Cox has already been talking with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt about the transition to a new administration. Leavitt was the head of transition planning for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
Cox has commuted to the Capitol daily from his home in Fairview, Sanpete County, but has said he would move if elected. A former local government official and state lawmaker, Cox was chosen by Herbert in 2013 to replace then Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who resigned to earn more money in the private sector.