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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, weighed in Thursday on the high-profile and contentious Idaho gubernatorial race, saying he was happy to see Gov. Brad Little beat his rivals, including his own lieutenant governor, in the primary.
"Gov. Little is a good friend and an excellent governor, and I'm very proud that he won the Republican nomination by a very large margin," Cox said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference.
Asked what Little's victory over his more "conservative" opponent says about Republican politics in the West these days, Cox challenged using the word "conservative" to describe Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Little, Cox contends, is the true conservative — and the type of conservative that the U.S. needs.
"I would push back a little bit on the contention that he was running against somebody more conservative," Cox said. "I think that term has been changed from what I believe conservative means."
McGeachin isn't "more conservative," Cox added. "She was more something, but not more conservative."
Little, Cox said, "is one of the most conservative governors in the country. I think he's an excellent conservative. He's a model conservative. He's the type of governor that we need and the effective governor that I aspire to be."
Idaho's contentious governor's race has garnered national headlines after Little and McGeachin became bitter rivals over the past two years, feuding over how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little's primary election win "represents a victory for a traditional, establishment Republican over a more extreme, far-right challenge from McGeachin," the Idaho Capital Sun reported.
Twice, when Little traveled out of state and McGeachin served as acting governor, she issued executive orders that banned mask mandates — even though Idaho never had a statewide mask mandate — and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in schools, according to the Idaho Capital Sun. Little immediately repealed each of McGeachin's executive orders and accused her of abusing authority to score cheap political points.
Cox is a Republican who has at times taken a more moderate approach on issues, most recently by vetoing the Utah Legislature's ban on transgender girls competing in school sports.
He's also been an outspoken ally on LGBTQ issues. In 2016, before he was elected governor, Cox went viral for an emotional speech he gave at a Salt Lake City vigil to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, a shooting at a gay bar in Florida that left 49 dead. In that speech, Cox apologized for at times not being "kind" to some of his high school classmates who he later found out were gay, saying his "heart has changed" and he will "forever regret not treating them with the love, kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserve."
As governor, Cox has urged his fellow Republicans to focus less on culture war wedge issues and more on policy issues that impact the day-to-day lives of Utahns. He's garnered national attention for his approach, including in Vanity Fair, which highlighted Cox and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for both vetoing anti-transgender sports bills and "refusing to join their party's anti-trans culture war."
Utah lawmakers swiftly overrode Cox's veto and tweaked it to address some of his concerns.
Cox's veto frustrated the far-right wings of Utah's GOP. But Cox said during last month's PBS Utah news conference he believes "most Utahns admire that, even if they disagree ... that we're not always just pandering" or making decisions based off of poll results or whatever talking heads on cable news say they should do.
Cox received a wave of negative national attention when Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson named him in a tirade earlier this month for, among other things, sharing his preferred pronouns in an online conversation with high school students.
The Utah Republican Party's chairman, Carson Jorgensen, joined Carlson's April 11 program to say Cox is out of step with GOP delegates.
Cox, when asked last month if he's concerned about the political fallout from his veto, told reporters, "Oh, you know, I don't know, nor do I care to be perfectly honest."
He said he knew there would be "political repercussions," but he's not making decisions based on what will boost his poll numbers.