Coronavirus response dominates GOP gubernatorial debate

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate, in Salt Lake City. Cox, known for his earnest grin and quirky Twitter feed, argued that he's been doing his job by leading the state's coronavirus task force. He touted the approach of his boss, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who made his stay-home order voluntary and moved early to reopen the economy. "We've done it ... as well or better than any other state in this nation," he said. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

SALT LAKE CITY – To paraphrase an old saying: “politics … and the coronavirus … make for strange bedfellows.”

During a June 1 broadcast hosted by the Utah Debate Commission, three of his gubernatorial rivals joined forces to accuse Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox of politicizing his leadership role in Utah’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., speaks during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City. Huntsman Jr. has one of the most recognizable names in the state as a former popular governor and son of a billionaire philanthropist. He stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Donald Trump to return to Utah and make a run and reclaiming his seat. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

Only former Utah House speaker Greg Hughes had previously been vocally critical of Cox’s management of the state COVID-19 Task force. But former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former state GOP chair Thomas Wright also weighed in negatively on Cox’s personal performance and on the nature of the Utah’s reaction to the outbreak.

Huntsman said there has been “absolutely no accountability” for some $100 million in emergency spending by the state task force for COVID-19 testing and other no-bid contracts. He also accused Cox of using the task force’s press briefings as a bully pulpit to promote his own candidacy while other candidates were “under house arrest” due to the state’s self-isolation and social distancing guidelines.

“The situation of every one of the 29 counties in this state was different (in terms of the threat of coronavirus infection),” Huntsman argued. “But Utah shut them all down just the same. In the next pandemic, let’s keep open the 80 percent of the state that is not at risk.”

Hughes used the debate forum to repeat his mantra that Cox had orchestrated a statewide over-reach of authority that violated Utahns’ constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of assembly and religion.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020 photo, former House Speaker Greg Hughes pauses during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

“The U.S. Bill of Rights should be more respected in a time of crisis like this, not less,” Hughes insisted.

Wright meanwhile said that, while Utah’s government didn’t build the state’s economy, the government is solely responsible for wrecking it.

“I’m a small business owner, the only one on this stage,” Wright added. “I’ve talked to hundreds of other business owners across this state and they’re all worried about whether they will be able to go back to work when the government finally allows them to … In another crisis, the state can’t rule by edict. The business community and the Legislature have to set up guardrails to prevent this.”

“The only people playing politics with this disease are the people on this stage,“ Cox shot back at his rivals, arguing that Utah is “better off than any other state in the country and the people of Utah know that.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright speaks during the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate in Salt Lake City. (Ivy Ceballo/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

“We’ve had a tremendous state response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Cox explained. “Utah was one of only seven states that didn’t have a complete economic shutdown. There were 45 states that took measures that curtailed civil liberties more than Utah … We have one of the lowest hospitalization rates in the country. We have one of the lowest mortality rates in the country. Our people have made sacrifices and it worked.”

The motivation for the debate brawl may be recent polling data that showed Cox leading the four-way race for the GOP nomination to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert.

According to a survey by pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Cox’s candidacy is now favored by 30 percent of voters who are definitely planning to participate in the GOP primary balloting on June 30.

The same survey showed Huntsman as favored by a stable 23 percent of definite voters, while Hughes has surged to 19 percent and Wright trails at 4 percent.

But the Rasmussen poll also indicated that about a quarter of voters who are planning to cast ballots in the upcoming primary still haven’t settled on a gubernatorial candidate.

Those results were based on survey responses from nearly 500 voters queried by Rasmussen between May 25 and 31.

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