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Sen. Mike Lee endorses Jon Huntsman for governor

FILE - Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. answers a question during a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Sen. Mike Lee says he endorses Jon Huntsman for Utah’s governor, a few weeks ahead of the state’s Republican convention. The senator announced his support for Huntsman’s bid, citing his “proven leadership and conservative credentials,” according to a press release.

Sen. Lee does not typically endorse candidates in Utah primary races, but said he made the exception because he finds former Gov. Huntsman to be the “clear choice.”

“I have seen firsthand what a remarkable leader and a true conservative Jon Huntsman really is,” said Senator Lee in a statement. “In moments when it would have been politically advantageous to abandon his values, he has stood strong in defense of the principles Utah Republicans hold dear.”

Sen. Lee had previously served as the general counsel in the Huntsman administration, where Lee said he saw “firsthand” the work Huntsman did as an envoy to Russia for the Trump administration.

Huntsman is running on a ticket with Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi as his running mate, which he announced in February.

Recent polling

This comes after new polls conducted by Y2 analytics through Utah Policy and KUTV 2 News show Lt. Gov Spencer Cox leading in the polls for the GOP nomination.

Pulling numbers from a large sampling of Utahns most likely to vote in the Republican primary and using preferential voting, Cox was shown to be leading by seven points as voters’ first choice.

“Spencer has been in Utah –  at each level of government – during the most prosperous decade in our state’s history,’ said Sen. Diedre Henderson, Cox’s running mate for lieutenant governor, in a statement. “Utahns trust Spencer most to return our economy to the best in the nation and see this recovery through until the very end.”

Poll respondents were asked to rank their top three choices for governor. In that category, 40% said Cox is their first choice. Huntsman came in second with 33%.

Other rankings for first choice among other candidates include: Greg Hughes with 16%, Jeff Burningham with 5%, Aimee Winder Newton at 4%, Thomas Wright with 1%, and both Jan Garbett and Jason Christensen showing support from less than 1%.

When asked about their second choice, respondents had Cox leading among primary voters with 29%. Huntsman trailed in that category with 23%.

The Republican primary voting date is scheduled for June 30. The official election for both the governor and lieutenant governor will be held Nov. 3.

Qualifications and social distancing

As of Friday, only Cox and Thomas Wright have qualified to be on the ballot in June — with Huntsman still scrambling to gather the 28,000 signatures needed to advance to the primary.

Gov. Gary Herbert has signed an executive order allowing candidates to gather handwritten signatures via email or fax, complying with social distancing standards through his “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive.

Cox was the first candidate to turn in his signatures before the state was placed under social distancing requirements.

“Citizen initiatives are an important part of our democratic process here in Utah,” the governor said in a statement.

“At this time, however, door-to-door signature-gathering poses an unnecessary health risk, both to signature gatherers, and to the households they visit. This order creates a path forward for the signature-gathering process for referenda while preserving the requirement for handwritten signatures.”

If Huntsman fails to gather enough signatures, he can still compete at the convention to get on the ballot — if he can secure 60% of the vote there, according to UtahPolicy.com. If he doesn’t secure 60%, the top two candidates receiving votes at the primary will move on.

This year, Republican delegates will use ranked-choice voting. That practice makes voting more convenient, as it will be held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.