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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday fumed at the headline plastered on top of Time magazine's article about him published that morning.
"The Red-State Governor Who's Not Afraid to Be 'Woke,'" it read. Even though the content of the story itself was "fair," Cox said that headline was "ridiculous" and is "doing the exact same thing that I rail against."
For Cox — a Republican who has encouraged political "civility" since the first days he took office, one who captured national attention for his veto of the Utah Legislature's ban on transgender girls competing in female school sports, and also one who supports Utah's near-total ban on abortion — labeling him as "woke" completely misses the mark.
"Being kind and trying to bring people together is very different than being 'woke,'" Cox said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference in response to a question about the Time article. "I think it's a trash headline and it's not accurate."
'That's not being woke'
While Cox said he only had a few minutes to skim the story before Thursday morning's press conference, he said the article itself fairly represented his views — and he encouraged Utahns and others across the nation to actually read the piece rather than pull their own conclusions from the headline.
He said the nation needs more people who will take the time to understand issues and each other — and less division.
"I stated in there that I'm not trying to own the libs. I'm trying to convince the libs that there's a better way. That's not being woke. That's very different," Cox said. "I think we have a problem with cancel culture and wokeness, and I think it's deeply problematic, and I think it's adding to the divide in our nation."
Cox said in Utah — a highly Republican state where leaders pride themselves on the "Utah way," a mantra to work across the political aisle to reach compromise on difficult issues like immigration — Democrats and Republicans have worked together in the past. While "we're not perfect," Cox said it's the clashes that nab the headlines.
So I'm going to continue to work across the aisle to find solutions and to try to help people see there's a different way and hopefully a better way.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
Cox's veto — and the Utah Legislature's swift override — of the transgender sports ban legislation was the most recent example of that, putting Cox's name in the crosshairs of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson.
In April, Carlson spent 10 minutes in an opening monologue criticizing Cox, calling him a "low-IQ weekend MSNBC anchor" and "cut-rate Gavin Newsom imitator," with a chyron splashed across the screen reading "HOW DID UTAH GET SUCH AWFUL, LIBERAL LEADERS?" — a segment that caught Time's attention.
After the segment aired, Cox brushed off Carlson's comments, saying he wasn't concerning himself with the political consequences, and that he knew — as he wrote in his veto letter — that there would be "political repercussions."
"But I try to do the right thing for the right reasons, regardless of the consequences. And I will continue to do that," Cox said during his April PBS Utah news conference.
In his interview with Time, Cox had stronger words for Carlson's rant.
"There is nobody more cowardly than Tucker Carlson," Cox said. "This idea that you're a coward for being kind, it's so anti-Christian. It's so anti-American. I mean that."
Cox said he's determined to "prove it's possible to be a socially conscious Republican," Time wrote.
"I believe I'm a conservative," he told Time. "I think my voting record would show I'm a conservative. But just because I'm not constantly railing against the other side, you get painted as a (Republican in Name Only)."
Thursday, Cox said he hopes the message that's heard is this:
"Look, if you care about our country and you care about the future of our country and these freedoms that we hold so dear, we are going to have to learn to work with people who are different than us," Cox said.
Cox said "clickbait headlines" are helping drive a deeper wedge between an already divided nation.
"We have to do better," Cox said.
'Anti-American' and 'damaging'
As a conservative, Cox said he holds his principles "very dear," and he grew up thinking "the whole idea" was to convince others "that what I believe is a better way to live and to govern." But now, "we've gotten to a place where both conservatives and liberals have decided ... that no one can change and that we need to kick everyone out that isn't exactly like us."
"That is so anti-American. It's incredibly damaging, and social media has made that much easier," he said. "So I'm going to continue to work across the aisle to find solutions and to try to help people see there's a different way and hopefully a better way."
Cox added he's also going to continue to "work within my own party" to "help us be a little less strident in kicking people out who agree with us 95% of the time and see if we can't build some bridges there."
The Republican Party's dilemma
Cox isn't alone as a Republican that's caught heat for attempts to walk a political middle ground and buck a "culture war" focus that's stirred the Republican Party's base in recent years as the party still continues to grapple with its identity in wake of former President Donald Trump and his baseless claims about a fraudulent 2020 election.
For Cox, it was the transgender sports ban veto. For Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, it was voting to convict Trump in his impeachment.
For Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., it was her role in investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — and this week she lost handily to Trump's endorsed candidate Harriet Hageman.
Asked about Cheney's loss on Thursday, Cox told reporters it wasn't a "surprise to anyone."
"We know it's a tumultuous time within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. This is a divide that's been around for a while," Cox said.
Regardless of party affiliation, Cox said he admires "anyone who is willing to stand up and say what they believe in, especially at the cost of them losing, whatever it is," Cox said.
Cox said it was a decision made by Wyoming voters, and he doesn't know much about Cheney's opponent. "Maybe she's great, maybe she's not," he said, adding he didn't pay much attention to the race other than it wasn't expected to be close.
As for what it means for the future of the GOP? "We're going to have to figure this out over the next couple of years as we go into 2024," he said, as the party grapples with who will be its presidential nominee.
"I'm certainly plotting a different path than President Trump plotted," Cox said, noting it's not the first time he's publicly noted his leadership style is the polar opposite of Trump's divisive rhetoric.
"We're very different. If you want a governor who is exactly like Donald Trump, then I'm probably not your guy," Cox said. "I like to work with the other side. I like to kind of bring people together. That certainly was not his style."
Trump won Utah in 2016 but with only about 45% of the vote. That shot up to 58% in 2020.
Cox, while he seeks to appeal to Utah Republicans who've had a complicated relationship with Trump's divisive style, acknowledged there are some members of his party that want "somebody that is just going to use hyperbole."
"Sadly," he added, that's resulted in spreading "unfounded allegations" of fraudulent elections, which led to the Jan. 6 violence.
"That's very damaging, and I certainly hope that more and more Republicans will work together to try to restore that belief and integrity in our election systems," Cox said. "And we've been trying to do that in the state of Utah as well."