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Gov. Herbert's re-election plans still unclear after lieutenant governor pick

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9 2013 5:40 p.m. MDT

Utah Governor Gary Herbert talks about the resignation of Utah Lt. Governor Greg Bell who stepped down from his office to pursue private matters Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Herbert on Tuesday named Rep. Spencer Cox to replace Bell.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert's choice of a newcomer to state politics to serve as his lieutenant governor did little to settle the question of whether the governor plans to seek re-election.

Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, was elected to the Utah Legislature only last year and had been largely unknown before Herbert's announcement Tuesday. The 38-year-old's previous political experience is limited to rural Sanpete County.

"I don't think the pick necessarily telegraphs Gov. Herbert's intentions one way or the other," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to the governor.

But Jowers said unlike some more experienced candidates for the post, Cox is poised to stick with the Republican governor through the remaining three years of his term, plus another four should Herbert run for re-election in 2016.

"Spencer Cox is not well-known now but will be in the next couple of years," he said, "and his relative youth would also give him the patience to serve for the next seven years if that's what Gov. Herbert decides to do."

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the U., wasn't sure how the choice of Cox to replace Lt. Gov. Greg Bell would play in a statewide re-election campaign.

"That's not somebody who's going to help you get votes. He's not a well-known enough commodity," Burbank said. "Most first-year members of the Legislature aren't going to have a big impact."

Last month, Bell, who ran with Herbert for the remainder of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term in 2010 and again in 2012, announced he was stepping down in order to earn more money.

Bell, who was a state senator and a member of GOP legislative leadership when he was chosen by Herbert as lieutenant governor, helped prod the governor's interest in Cox. Both Bell and Cox are lawyers and have worked on rural issues together.

Bell declined to discuss whether Herbert was looking for a running mate in 2016 when he tapped Cox to take over the lieutenant governorship.

"That's for him to say," Bell said.

Herbert also doesn't want to talk about his political future.

"It's just no time for that decision. Clearly we want to be in a position if we chose and we are" running, the governor told reporters at Tuesday's announcement. "That will be a decision for the first part of 2015. … I'll just let that percolate."

The governor's office has decided not to make Cox available for interviews until after he is confirmed by the state Senate as expected next Wednesday, but one of his closest friends in the Legislature said he thinks Herbert will run again.

"My guess is, if anything, the governor is there for a while," Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, said.

If that proves to be the case, Herbert has both a "solid running mate and partner for the next seven years" in Cox, Brown said.

"The thing about Spencer, that goes to the fact there's a genuine humility about him, is he doesn't come across as someone trying to climb the ladder," he said. "This is not something he had ambitions for."

Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Herbert probably doesn't need to worry much about what his lieutenant governor pick brings to the ticket in 2016.

"Someone who has as high an approval rating as Gov. Herbert has shouldn't be worried about that," Monson said. "Short of some major scandal, he's going to do fine in another general election."

Monson said the governor was likely more focused on choosing someone compatible rather than weighing the political advantages and disadvantages of his pick.

"If you're going to work with them, you want somebody you get along with, you see eye-to-eye with, and is qualified," the BYU professor said. "Ultimately, it's Gov. Herbert who has to be happy with the person."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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