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As Cox, Peterson debate, what will it take to win the Utah governor’s race?

Utah Democratic candidate for governor Chris Peterson (left) and Republican Candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (right) Photos: Kristin Murphy and Ivy Ceballo | Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox (R) and University of Utah Professor Chris Peterson (D) will debate on Friday as they vie for the spot to replace outgoing Governor Gary Herbert (R) in the November. 

But in the age of COVID-19, what will it take for any candidate to win? 

Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry says Cox’s early campaign start helped him beat a crowded Republican field. 

“What’s interesting is many political commentators looked at that early start, and they thought it might be a little early. He said he was going to visit every single city in the state of Utah, and he did,” Perry said. “But the worry about that is you don’t find the momentum at the right time.”  

Then COVID-19 changed the dynamic. 

“It turned out to be a really great strategy for him because he was planting seeds ahead of everyone else. And then COVID-19 hit, and no one else was able to plant seeds,” Perry said. 

Cox’s campaign is focused on jump-starting the economy again. 

However, Perry says their polls show Utahns mostly approve of how the state has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, making Cox a more attractive candidate to voters. 

“Twenty-two percent of the Democrats in the state of Utah said they were also going to support Spencer Cox. Which means that his campaign has been able to breach that middle ground, where he’s trying to get those moderates, the people on the center-right and the center-left. And once he’s able to capture that part of the voters, it becomes very difficult for the challenger to make many inroads,” Perry said. 

Another challenge for Democratic candidate Chris Peterson is COVID-19 putting a stop to town halls and other in-person ways to connect with voters. 

To get around that, he is reaching people on social media and highlighting what he would do differently during the pandemic. 

“He’s advocated for a statewide mask mandate. Chris Peterson, in a conversation recently with me, indicated that the governor’s office should apply more pressure on these local jurisdictions. Still, let them make their own decisions based on what’s right for their populations, but a little more involvement from the governor’s office [on] what they should do,” Perry said. 

Although Utah has been a reliably red state for years, another ray of hope for Peterson, as well as the third-party candidates running, is that most Utahns do not care about a candidate’s political party. 

“What we’re going to start hearing people talk about in the next couple of weeks is Supreme Court candidates and about healthcare and education,” Perry said. “Whether you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ in front of your name is not the primary consideration. [Utahns] are looking to the people as individuals.”                      

When and where to watch the upcoming Utah political debates

Utah Debate Commission selects moderators for 2020 debates