SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has handily won the race for Utah governor, replacing the leader who endorsed him in a campaign that played out during the coronavirus pandemic. He is the state’s first new governor in more than a decade.
Cox defeated Democrat Chris Peterson, a law professor who continued to advocate for a mask mandate as cases spiked this fall. Cox supported Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision to encourage them and even approve mask mandates in local areas, but not require their use.
The general election came after a hard-fought GOP primary where Cox, a moderate and onetime critic of President Donald Trump, beat out three other competitors for the nomination that’s often decisive in conservative Utah.
During his acceptance speech, Cox outlined a vision for the state and his party.
“We must be the party of civil rights. We must be the party of the downtrodden. We’ve given up too many of these issues to other parties,” he said.
One of those was former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr., who had previously served as governor and is a well-known political name. He caught the virus during the race and later recovered.
Cox will succeed Herbert, who first took office in 2009 and decided not to run again this year. Herbert in May endorsed Cox, who became lieutenant governor in 2013, as his chosen successor.
The race garnered national attention when the two candidates appeared together on an ad calling for civility in a time of increasingly bitter political divisions around the country.
Voter Helen Jones, a 74-year-old retired English professor, said that move made her especially glad to vote for Cox.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the ad that he and Peterson did together, showing what really civil thoughtful good guys could do it they came together in spite of all this contentiousness,” she said.
Cox consistently polled well ahead in the state, which has not elected a Democratic governor in more than 40 years.
The pandemic had cast a shadow on the race, though Cox declared his candidacy early and had months to campaign in person before the coronavirus struck in the spring.
Cox also has had a higher profile during the crisis, since he was part of the state’s response while his competitors saw most traditional election activities curtailed by it.
The state’s handling of the pandemic lost Cox support with Democratic-leaning voters like Jo Parrish, 66, of Ogden, who want to see stricter mask requirements during a record-setting surge this fall. “There has been zero leadership,” she said.
Cox has also taken heat from the other side, from conservative voters who have never forgotten that he was once a sharp critic of Trump. But during this election season, Cox said that he supports the president.
Cox has defended the state’s handling of the health crisis and economic upheaval, pointing to a low mortality rate and relatively low unemployment rate.