2012 Contender Series: Jon Huntsman
In this corner… is an ongoing series looking into the viability of potential candidates for the 2012 Presidential race.
(Updated: Huntsman officially left the race and endorsed Mitt Romney prior to the South Carolina primary)
(Updated: Huntsman formally entered the race on the summer solstice, June 21st)
On Monday, Jon Huntsman, Jr., resigned as Ambassador to China, a move that is widely regarded as presaging his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination.
Huntsman was a successful and well-liked Governor of Utah in 2009 when President Obama chose him for what is probably the most critical diplomatic position short of Secretary of State. Huntsman, in many ways, was an ideal candidate for the position. He served an LDS Mission to Taiwan and speaks Mandarin. He and his wife, Mary Kaye Cooper Huntsman, have adopted a Chinese child, Gracie Mei Huntsman (born 2000) into their family.
Jon Huntsman, Jr., is a leading member of a prominent family in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or “Mormon”*) religious hierarchy. He was born in Palo Alto, California on March 26, 1960. His family owns Huntsman International LLC, a diversified chemical company founded, and still headed, by Jon Huntsman, Sr. The elder Huntsman and his family have been leaders in philanthropic giving in Utah, including funding the Huntsman Cancer Institute and donating $250 million (to date) to its clinical and research programs.
Jon Huntsman, Jr. and his wife, Mary Kaye Cooper (an Orlando, Florida native not born into the LDS Church), met at Highland High School in Salt Lake City in the late 1970s, where they were both active in student government. They were married in 1983.
Along with Gracie Mei, they have six natural children: Mary Anne (born 1985), Abigail (born 1986), Elizabeth (born 1989), Jon III (born 1991), and William (born 1993). Another child, Asha Bharati (born 2006) was adopted from India.
After holding several positions in the Reagan and Bush administration, Huntsman was elected Governor of Utah in 2004 with 57% of the vote, defeating Scott Matheson, Jr., (himself a member of a dying Democratic political dynasty in the state; his father was Governor and his brother is currently a Blue Dog Democratic Congressman representing Utah’s Second Congressional District). In his re-election campaign in 2008, Huntsman won 77% of the vote.
Huntsman, despite representing one of the most socially conservative states, consistently staked out positions that were considered quite liberal by Utah standards. For example, he was a strong advocate for reform of Utah’s arcane liquor laws. The liquor laws included a provision that liquor could not be served over the bar, but had to be carried around the bar to the customer. One local alternative weekly suggested that the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Commission being controlled by LDS faithful “is like putting cats in charge of dog food.”
Huntsman was active in pushing for Utah and other Western states to form a compact to fight anthropogenic global warming from carbon dioxide emissions. He is in favor of civil unions for gay couples. Huntsman has been a strong advocate for public education in Utah and opposed school voucher programs. Like many of his positions, this put him squarely at odds with the much more conservative Republican establishment in the state. (The Utah Republican Party famously ousted Sen. Robert Bennett and is closely allied with the Club for Growth, Tea Party, and 9/12 groups.) The State Legislature regularly fought Gov. Huntsman’s initiatives. More recently, Huntsman’s former Chief of Staff, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), called Huntsman “wrong on global warming. It’s a farce.”
On abortion and gun control, his positions are much closer to traditional Republican party stances.
Huntsman’s family and personal wealth, his charisma and personal popularity in the west, and his relatively moderate positions will all make him a formidable candidate in the general election, should he survive the Republican primary process—as noted by President Obama during the Chinese state visit in January.
On the minus side, his LDS faith and his anti-Tea Party positions may make it difficult for him to survive the Republican primary, especially if the process is dominated by evangelical non-LDS Christians, who are clearly uncomfortable with a Mormon candidate.
My prediction is that he will be a formidable opponent for President Obama if nominated, but I anticipate that he will have a great deal of difficulty securing the Republican nomination. If he can build a national organization as agile as Candidate Obama’s 2008 effort, then he will make it to the convention, where he would be a strong contender. If he fails, I could easily see him joining other moderate Republicans to form a third party, leaving a Tea Party-dominated rump Republican party.
*In some circles, the term “Mormon” is felt to be pejorative. The LDS Church uses “LDS” exclusively as shorthand for the church’s full name.
- Jon Huntsman’s 2012 Campaign Conundrum (newsweek.com)
- Huntsman vs. Romney divide at private equity firm? (finance.fortune.cnn.com)
- Jon Huntsman Prepares for 2012 Presidential Bid (bilerico.com)
- Jon M. Huntsman Jr., U.S. ambassador to China, resigns; said likely to explore GOP presidential run – Politico (politico.com)
- Jon Huntsman’s 2012 Campaign Conundrum (thedailybeast.com)
- Jon Huntsman Stepping Down As Ambassador To China (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Can Jon Huntsman win? (politico.com)
- Obama Admin Expects Jon Huntsman To Resign, Explore Presidential Run: Reports (huffingtonpost.com)
- Huntsman In The Hunt (huffingtonpost.com)