What do the boards of directors for Chevron, Ford Motors, Hilton Worldwide, and Caterpillar all have in common?
Answer: Jon Huntsman Jr.
America’s multinational juggernauts are clearly capitalizing on the former Utah Governor’s grasp of global affairs. Yet, as Huntsman weighs a senate bid in 2018, likely challenging Sen. Orrin Hatch, Huntsman's vast international experience may ironically be as much a political liability as an asset.
Although a growing cadre of Beehive politicos feel strongly that Utah could benefit from Huntsman’s international expertise, in an age of newfound Republican protectionism, globalist bonafides — including connections to China and the Obama administration — are not without complications.
But those close to Huntsman believe his skills are exactly what the state needs to remain relevant in an increasingly intercontinental economy.
With two ambassadorships in Asia and a stint as the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, to say nothing of his overseas experiences as an executive and governor, there are indeed reasons to feel that much can be gained from the return of Utah’s globally savvy son.
Lew Cramer, who ran the World Trade Center Utah during both the Huntsman and Herbert administrations, and who currently serves as CEO of Coldwell Banker Commercial Advisors, recently sat down with me to explain just what kind of an impact Huntsman could have on Utah’s economy.
Cramer, who still maintains strong ties to Sen. Orrin Hatch, detailed how Huntsman put in motion initiatives that resulted in the Beehive State consistently outperforming its chief geographic rival, Colorado, in international trade. According to 2015 data, for example, Utah racked up $13.3 billion in international exports—at its 2012 apex it reached $19 Billion. Meanwhile Colorado, with its much larger population, lagged well behind in 2015 at $8 billion, according to figures from the International Trade Administration.
To compete in the global, knowledge-based economy, Cramer contends, Utah needs to keep international doors open. Huntsman, he says, holds the keys. It doesn’t hurt that Huntsman is well connected with two of Utah’s largest international trading partners, China and Hong Kong.
Not everyone, of course, will see things Cramer’s way.
Those who believe Utah should focus on local issues may be inclined to dismiss Gov. Huntsman as a politician with sights fixed too firmly on foreign shores and lacking commitment to his home state.
Huntsman will need to make the case to voters that although he’s spent the better part of the past decade either in China as Ambassador or in Washington D.C. (where he launched his presidential bid) he’s still Utah’s former governor, and that his past international focus was about the local economy all along.
Huntsman has already taken an important first step by moving back to his home state.
But, as I detailed last month, Sen. Hatch will be hard to beat. Huntsman recently told the Deseret News: “We're going to take a good look at this over the next six months to see how best to serve a great state.” For his part, Sen. Hatch, a proud octogenarian, previously promised during the 2012 primary election that he would opt out of an eighth term. Yet, Hatch has been making a strong case that circumstances have changed with a Republican president suddenly assuming office with which Hatch has a close connection. "With Trump winning and so forth, I think the circumstances have changed dramatically," Hatch has told media outlets. Meanwhile, his supporters have also begun publicly encouraging him to run again.
Beating Hatch will be an uphill battle; but a popular former governor with the very kind of ties to international trade and commerce that have helped the Beehive State in the past would present Hatch with a formidable foe.
The prevailing wisdom is that Sen. Hatch holds the upper hand as a powerful and productive incumbent with even more clout under the incoming administration. And, in a state where labels sometimes matter, Huntsman’s brand as a Republican pragmatist, even serving as co-chair of the group “No Labels,” which claims to be America’s “voice for the New Center,” may create skepticism within certain party circles.
And yet, most recent polling shows that Huntsman remains remarkably popular across the state. His supporters are already beginning to suggest that he cease fueling Ford and Chevron, and start helping the Beehive State exchange its honey for money overseas.
While I remain neutral on the Hatch v. Huntsman race, you can bet I’ll be bringing plenty of popcorn.