Though not unanimous, this view of Jon Huntsman offered by Utah tea party activist Darcy Van Orden runs deep in Beehive State conservative circles and could represent Huntsman’s single biggest barrier to winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Interviews with more than a half-dozen Utah conservatives, including one Republican consultant, two GOP state legislators and three tea party activists, reveal Huntsman as an intelligent, gifted politician with extraordinary charisma who fell out of favor with his party’s base for a perception that he drifted to the left on key fiscal and social issues.
That dissatisfaction surfaced long before President Barack Obama tapped him as ambassador to China.
“I wouldn’t call him moderate or conservative. I’d call him liberal,” said small-business owner David Kirkham, among the best-known Utah tea party organizers.
LaVarr Webb, a political consultant who worked for former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) for seven years as a policy deputy, described Huntsman, a former two-term governor, as among the most popular governors ever. Webb said that Huntsman especially appealed to mainstream Democratic, Republican and independent voters and that conservatives liked him personally. But as Huntsman’s Salt Lake City administration unfolded, “he took more moderate positions than the far right would have liked” on gay rights and climate change, Webb said.
But many Utah conservative activists were equally disenchanted with Huntsman’s record on state spending. They viewed the governor’s position on climate change and federal lands as supporting a powerful federal government, an image that might not be helpful in a Republican presidential primary.
Early in Huntsman’s gubernatorial tenure, he successfully shepherded a private school vouchers bill through the state Legislature. But conservatives were later disappointed because they believed he did not fight to defend the legislation in a voter referendum that repealed it. There was another uproar when Huntsman pared down the state’s workweek from five days to four to save energy — and when he entered Utah into the Western Climate Initiative with five other states concerned about global warming.
“As far as the national, presidential election goes, a lot of us [in Utah] are really kind of scratching our heads on why he’s trying to do this given the difficulty of the nominating process for a more moderate Republican,” Webb said. “I don’t see how he has much of a chance in the current political climate. I think it will be very difficult for him.”
Huntsman, who turns 51 later this month, has yet to announce a presidential bid and is precluded by law from doing anything in this regard before his scheduled April 30 resignation as ambassador becomes official. But a White House run had been in the planning before Huntsman went to China, and a team of well-known Republican political operatives is in place and ready to go to work for him if he pulls the trigger.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.