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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Seventeen years ago, when Jon Huntsman Jr. was 32 years old and relatively inexperienced, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., grilled him about whether George H.W. Bush had nominated him as the youngest ambassador in a century (to Singapore) as a reward for big donations that his billionaire father gave Republicans.

Now, few inside national politics look at the extended Huntsman family as big donors just to Republicans. In fact, in last year's elections, the family gave twice as much to Democrats as the GOP.

No one, of course, is questioning whether Huntsman, a two-time ambassador and a Republican Utah governor who speaks Mandarin, was nominated now as ambassador to China by Democratic President Barack Obama as a reward for his family's donations to Democrats.

But it shows the extended family has become more bipartisan than many may realize.

It may also have helped open doors for some key Democrats to help with the new nomination, as well as help family patriarch Jon Huntsman Sr. in his drive for more government funding to fight cancer.

During the 2008 election cycle, members of Huntsman's extended family (parents, siblings and children) gave at least $160,800 to Democratic federal party groups and candidates. It gave only about half as much — $87,600 — to Republicans, according to a Deseret News analysis of Federal Election Commission records.

The governor and his wife and children donated only to Republicans, not surprisingly. But not his parents and siblings.

His parents — Jon Huntsman Sr. (billionaire founder of Huntsman Chemical) and Karen Huntsman, who stood near their son when Obama announced his nomination — gave $40,400 each to Democrats during the 2008 election cycle.

Each of them gave $28,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Committee, which helped elect the Democratic senators who will now largely determine whether to confirm their son.

They also gave $5,000 each to the Democratic Party of Nevada (home of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid); $4,600 each to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.; and $2,300 each to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

They gave slightly less to Republicans. Jon Huntsman Sr. gave them at least $37,700 and Karen Huntsman gave at least $39,000.

They each gave $28,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Among other candidates that one or both gave to include the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and to the campaigns of recently defeated Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C,

Jon Huntsman Sr. was traveling and did not immediately respond to Deseret News questions about why he contributes to people in both parties.

But he has said in the past that he aims his money at any politician — Democrat or Republican — who is willing to help fund fights against cancer. He is well known for his own philanthropy to fight cancer, including helping to create the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital at the University of Utah.

"At this stage of my life, there is only one cause that I care about funding: find a cure for cancer," Jon Huntsman Sr. said in a 2002 interview. "Candidates who are not supportive do not get my support. Those who are do. I don't care about their party affiliation."

When asked if giving large donations works, he said in 2002, "It's definitely helping." He talked about how it opened doors to talk about cancer funding with such people as Vice President Dick Cheney (with whom he fishes in Idaho), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Reid, who was then the Democratic whip and is now the majority leader.

Such friendships may have even helped a bit with the latest nomination for the governor.

For example, Reid's spokesman, Rodell Mollineau, said that Reid helped with the governor's appointment to the ambassadorship by putting in a "good word" for him with administration officials, including Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

"He believes Huntsman is extremely well-qualified for the position," Mollineau said. "He also has a high regard for the entire Huntsman family, who have been leaders in the business community for years."

(In February this year, Karen and Jon Huntsman Sr. also each gave Reid a maximum-allowed $4,800 for his next campaign, and each gave the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee a maximum-allowed $30,400 donation. They each also gave the Republican senatorial committee identical donations.)

Meanwhile during the 2008 campaign, the governor's brother and sister-in-law, Huntsman Corp. President and CEO Peter Huntsman and his wife, Brynn, each gave $33,100 to Democrats — including $28,500 each to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $4,600 each to Baucus.

Among Democratic donations by other siblings of the governor, Huntsman Corp. Vice President David Huntsman gave $4,600 to Baucus; and Jennifer Huntsman Parkin gave $2,300 to Baucus, and her husband, David Parkin, also gave Baucus $2,300.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com