SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. went back on the Utah campaign trail Thursday as he launched a bid to reclaim the governor’s title more than a decade after he left office.
The Republican’s name recognition makes him a top contender. During an appearance in southern Utah, Huntsman responded to speculation about his unusual political pivot by saying he would serve out a full term rather than leave if offered another national job.
“A lot of people are asking why we would want to do this again,” he said in a statement, referring to him and his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman. “While we’ve served in this post before, we can’t think of anything else we’d rather do.”
Huntsman, a charismatic, popular moderate conservative who oversaw a period of economic growth and tax reform, had recently been elected for a second term when he stepped down in 2009 to serve as U.S. ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
He mounted a short-lived run for president during the 2012 cycle and went abroad again as ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump, an assignment that was particularly challenging as the U.S. investigated Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.
After two years, Huntsman left Russia amid heavy speculation about a potential gubernatorial run. He’s entering a crowded field of candidates but has name recognition from his time in the governor’s mansion and as the son of late billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., a well-known philanthropist with another son who purchased the Salt Lake Tribune.
Among Huntsman’s competitors are Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican who has been willing to criticize Trump at times and has the support of Gov. Gary Herbert.
Huntsman, who endorsed the president in 2016, touted his international experience in his campaign announcement, saying it would give him the vision to help Utah compete on the world stage.
“He’s looking for that next chapter. If there’s a place he can start that, why not come back to Utah see if he could pick up where he left off?” said Reed Galen, an independent Utah-based political consultant who has worked for prominent Republicans like George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.
While a state position could be seen as a step backward, Galen said a governor can often make decisions and execute them quickly, especially as a well-known Republican leader in a deeply GOP state.
Still, there are skeptics. Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler said Huntsman is going to have to convince voters that Utah isn’t an “overlooked girlfriend” or a platform between more high-profile roles.
“I think he’s going to be hard to beat, but I do think he should not get a free pass,” Weiler said.
Huntsman is vying to replace his own successor and onetime lieutenant governor. Herbert has served as governor since Huntsman left for China but is not running again in 2020.
Other Republicans who have already declared include Utah County businessman Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.
Huntsman’s highest-profile competitor for the GOP nomination is probably Cox, a native of rural Utah who has support there as well as an established a presence on Twitter, where he shares his love for the Utah Jazz basketball team and asides about Taylor Swift alongside political posts.
Cox cast himself as an underdog in a tweet Thursday, appealing to supporters to help him overcome challenges like a lack of a “billion dollars” and “names on buildings.”