Opinion: Utah’s political fallout from GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman’s departure


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Democrat president Barack Obama names Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China, standing next to his wife, Mary Kaye

President Obama seems to have scored the rare political ten-strike (and, no, we haven’t forgotten his unfortunate Pennsylvania bowling episode). We’re talking about his selection of Utah’s GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as U.S. ambassador to China, as anticipated here by The Ticket and officially recorded here the next day.


The 49-year-old Huntsman is winning kudos from Democrats and many fellow Republicans as a highly qualified and even inspired selection. He’s fluent in Mandarin and has lived, worked and traveled extensively throughout East Asia and the Pacific.

Conservatives are also pleased; they’re saying good riddance because of Huntsman’s relatively moderate stance on the environment and certain social issues including, most notably, his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians, while also supporting the state’s successful marriage amendment of 2004. (Not exactly what some might expect from the Mormon governor of Utah.)

Obama supporters are pleased for their own reasons. Many -- including 2008 ...

... campaign guru David Plouffe -- believe Huntsman’s centrist image would make him a formidable White House contender if he ever made it through a GOP primary.

Happily, from their perspective, the ambassadorship seems to place Huntsman’s ill-concealed presidential ambitions on hold until sometime after 2012. One report had Huntsman just one month away from forming a campaign exploratory committee.

Which is not to suggest everyone is pleased. When does that ever happen in life, much less politics?

Among the most upset over Huntsman’s impending departure are Utah’s embattled Democrats and their progressive allies who dread his replacement, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, a lawmaker about as different from the incumbent as two members of one party can be.

How different?

Huntsman may be the greenest Republican governor in the country, strongly advocating action to fight global warming. Herbert recently spoke at a forum hosted by the conservative Sutherland Institute which, per its website, “reinforced the message that global warming is not human-caused and that those who contend that it is are ignoring scientific evidence to the contrary.”

Utah Republican Lieutenant Governor Gary Herbert


David Magleby, a dean at Brigham Young University and one of Utah’s most astute political observers, put it this way:

“This state will see, I think, a far more conservative agenda shared by both the governor and the Legislature than we’ve had in two decades.

“This is a sea change, not just a change from Huntsman. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a governor as conservative as most people assume Gary Herbert will be.”

Herbert will have to stand for election as governor in 2010 and, as of today, looks to be the front-runner.

But he could face a number of challengers, including the state’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, who had been expected to run against U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett in the GOP primary.

Loyal Ticket readers will recall Shurtleff from last week’s oops-can-I-take-that-back episode when he accidentally sent a message to all his Twitter followers when he intended it for just one pair of friendly eyes.

As Magleby notes, “Utah is among the most one-party of the one-party states.” Thus, political advancement often means taking on one of your own.


Other possible Herbert challengers -- courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune -- include House Speaker Dave Clark, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie, Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, and/or businessman Fred Lampropoulos, who made a well-financed 2004 bid for governor.

“There are a lot of people who would like to be governor,” says Dave Hansen, a veteran Utah GOP strategist. “Just as there are in every state.”

Hansen expects most will wait to see how Herbert performs in his first few months in office. (Typically, governors in this position do not resign until confirmed by the Senate, though no known problems confront him now. And the Senate is controlled by Democrats headed by fellow Mormon Harry Reid.)

Among Democrats, the leading contender (if he were to run) appears to be Rep. Jim Matheson, son of the state’s last Democratic governor, the late Scott Matheson, whose two terms ended in 1985. Other prospects include Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

“Democrats in Utah are an endangered species,” Magleby says. Matheson “always has to worry he’s just one House election cycle or challenging midterm election away from ending his term.” Matheson, who was first elected to Congress in 2000, told the Tribune he was giving the race some thought. “In politics you always look at your opportunities,” he said.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo credits: Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty Images; Office of Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.