Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Huntsman, Herbert are Utah's political odd couple

Published: Sunday, April 26 2009 12:03 a.m. MDT

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, are starting to be viewed as something of a political odd couple. Huntsman is quickly developing a national reputation as a Republican moderate with presidential ambitions, while Herbert remains a traditional Utah conservative who will seek the 2012 GOP gubernatorial nomination. This raises some intriguing questions:

How are Huntsman and Herbert different in their positions on issues and ideological outlooks?

There are a number of differences, both in tone and substance. For example, Huntsman supports civil unions for gay couples, while Herbert does not. Huntsman is quite moderate on environmental issues, signing on to the Western Climate Initiative cap-and-trade proposals to reduce carbon emissions. Herbert attends meetings with traditional energy developers and expresses strong support for carbon-based energy sources. He isn't jumping on the global warming bandwagon. Herbert recently attended a planning meeting of the Utah Public Lands Multiple Use Coalition, which intends to ignite a second "Sagebrush Rebellion" to "take back Utah" from federal bureaucrats. In interviews with the national news media, Huntsman criticizes congressional conservatives in Washington as out-of-touch. Herbert is much more respectful of party elders, and he attends and speaks at most county Republican conventions, where he tosses out conservative red meat to the delegates. Huntsman supported John McCain. Herbert supported Mitt Romney.

With those rather stark differences, they must have some very interesting private meetings. Do they ever yell at each other?

Actually, no. In fact, just the opposite. They like each other and get along very well. They understand they are playing different roles, but they view them as complementary. They didn't plan it out this way, but the relationship has evolved into something that actually works quite well for both of them. Huntsman can take moderate positions on national issues and build his reputation as he desires, while Herbert is back home soothing the conservative Republican base, attending and speaking at their gatherings, and smoothing over any hurt feelings.

Herbert is very loyal to Huntsman. He says they are different but complementary, in perfect harmony on the big goals of running the state well, bolstering the economy and building a great education system. On some issues they differ. When Herbert is asked if he agrees with every position Huntsman has taken, he replies that even he and his wife don't agree on everything. Herbert says both he and Huntsman are "right of center," and he defends Huntsman as a tax-cutter, supporter of school vouchers and as someone with enormous political skills who can negotiate common-sense solutions in the middle ground on divisive political issues. Herbert describes himself as a good soldier whose job is to help Huntsman be the best governor he can be.

Will Huntsman's moderate positions hurt Herbert in his 2012 gubernatorial bid?

It's clearly a tightrope that Herbert must walk. He has to remain loyal, while demonstrating his independence on some issues. But he is helped by the fact that the Huntsman-Herbert administration is enormously popular with the general public, enjoying high approval ratings even in a down economy. Herbert's challenge is to remain popular with the conservative base that is a little annoyed by Huntsman. These conservatives are represented disproportionately in party caucuses and among delegates who will have a big voice in choosing the next GOP gubernatorial nominee.

Herbert is already working hard on his gubernatorial bid. His job portfolio as lieutenant governor, including transportation, rural affairs, water and homeland security, requires him to travel the state, meeting with local political, business and civic leaders. He is already receiving commitments of support from some leaders. He stays in close touch with local party leaders. But some politicos question whether Herbert can successfully establish a separate conservative identity apart from Huntsman.

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