In This Corner…Jon Huntsman

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.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. Source:

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 and Mary Kaye Huntsman listen to President Obama announce that Jon is to be named Chinese Ambassador, May 16, 2009. Source: Life.

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.

About Monotreme

Monotreme is an unabashedly liberal dog lover, writer, and former scientist who now teaches at a University in an almost-square state out West somewhere. |
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25 Responses to In This Corner…Jon Huntsman

  1. mostlyilurk says:

    Thanks for this post. When I heard about his resignation the other day, I thought he’d be an interesting candidate to talk about “in this corner.” I do wonder, though, if he believes that he has a real chance this time around or if he’s setting the stage for 2016.

  2. Bartbuster says:

    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 doesn’t have a prayer.

  3. mclever says:

    Good point mostlyilurk about possibly setting the stage for 2016. Politicians with Presidential ambitions usually have long-term agendas. However, if a run in 2016 were his objective, then wouldn’t he hang onto his ambassadorship for a little longer? Or, maybe he’s just hoping to have a good enough showing this time around so that he might be perceived as “next in line” by 2016.

    I wonder how the campaigns of Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney might play off of one another. Both are relatively moderate Republicans with strong LDS ties. Would they steal each others’ thunder, poaching from the same pool of moderate Republicans? (Vote splitting.) Or, would their mutual candidacy serve to bolster the other’s legitimacy by removing some of the stigma that many conservative, fundamentalist Christians may try to paint on any “Mormon*” making their faith less of a political handicap. If there are two of them, then they can’t be so strange or unusual or “other”, can they?

    Or, might Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman “take turns” with one of them running this time to pave the way for the other’s (potentially stronger) run in four years. It might make the second one’s candidacy seem more legitimate and palatable. (Or, perhaps Huntsman is hoping to use the path already partially paved by Romney’s strong showing in 2008.)

    * Not that I have any particular bias against members of the LDS church serving in political office, but I am aware of the prejudice against “Mormons” in certain circles.

  4. Monotreme says:

    I thought it would be better for Huntsman if he let Romney put the question to rest in 2012, then ran in 2016. I agree that if he were to wait for 2016, he would’ve stayed Ambassador for a while longer. Just goes to show what I know about Presidential politics.

    Mitt Romney addresses the “Mormon question” here:

    He may want to split off the moderate wing of the Republican party. He certainly has the resources to do so. I could see a scenario where Romney fails at the 2012 nomination and then he, Huntsman, Scott Brown, and others, bolt to form their own party. I don’t think it’s likely, but I do think it’s possible.

  5. Brian says:

    I honestly think he will fail the Tea Party purity test and not survive the primary. As amusing as this is to say, the Republican from Utah who served on Reagan’s and Bush’s administrations is too liberal.

    I wonder how the Tea Party will treat his serving in Obama’s administration.

  6. Bart DePalma says:

    Huntsman’s resignation for the longest of shots presidential campaign pretty much shows the GOP sees Obama as eminently defeatable. 2012 may see a record for GOP presidential candidates broken.

    The question is whether Hillary will find a reason to resign by this summer and mount a primary challenge?

  7. Monotreme says:

    Bart says:

    Huntsman’s resignation for the longest of shots presidential campaign pretty much shows the GOP sees Obama as eminently defeatable.

    This comment makes me positively giddy.

  8. Bartbuster says:

    the GOP sees Obama as eminently defeatable.

    The GOP also thought that invading Iraq was a good idea, so I’m not sure we’re talking about a group of people with especially good judgement.

  9. mostlyilurk says:

    “Huntsman’s resignation for the longest of shots presidential campaign pretty much shows the GOP sees Obama as eminently defeatable.”

    I’m wondering if Mike Pence sees Obama as being “eminently defeatable.”

  10. Mr. Universe says:

    Yeah but Mike Pence’s Mom says he is not running. 🙂

  11. Mule Rider says:

    “evangelical non-LDS Christians, who are clearly uncomfortable with a Mormon candidate.”

    I see this conjecture thrown around regularly by many on the Left, but is there evidence/facts to support it? Or is it another baseless assertion?

  12. mostlyilurk says:

    I thought Mike Pence himself said (or did something to indicate) that he wasn’t running. Hadn’t heard about his mom, lol!

  13. shortchain says:



    We observe that the percentages of GOP voters (including, presumably, fundamentalists) who would not vote for a member of the LDS church has declined. Perhaps by 2012 it will be minuscule, or at least small enough not to matter, even in the primaries or caucuses — but right now it probably would.

  14. Mule Rider says:

    Thanks for the link, sc.

  15. mclever says:

    Mule Rider,

    See these links for more information on polling of voter opinion regarding faith of the candidate:

    The actual Gallup results from December 2007 note that long-term opposition to a Mormon candidate for President has held relatively steady (~17%) since 1967 when Mitt’s own father was running. However, in February 2007 just before Mitt Romney announced his candidacy, the percentage was higher (~24% overall). After Mitt’s “faith” speech, the number reverted to the 17% baseline. By August, it crept back up to ~22% objecting.

    This article offers some additional insight behind the numbers in the Gallup poll.

    From the link: “A February 2007 Gallup poll, however, showed Republicans were more opposed to voting for a Mormon candidate. Thirty percent of Republicans compared to 23 percent of Democrats expressed opposition.”

    So, in that poll where the percent opposing was elevated, it was slightly more Republicans than Democrats who opposed a Mormon as President. Note that *both* numbers declined after Mitt’s “faith” speech, to the point where Democrats and Republicans were both at ~18%, then gradually rose again throughout the election season.

    Hope that helps!

  16. Mainer says:

    Brian is most likely right. I had a little time today while on the worlds dullest conference call to bounce around the net and a number of sites and while being a Mormon may not help Huntsman it most likely will not be what stands in his way either. It appears he is viewed as a flaming liberal in many conservative circles that was turn coat for agreeing to be the Obama administration rep to China, can see the merits in cap and trade and is generally every thing the more red meat portions of the right dislike most. As in reasonable, articulate, intelligent and apparently not hell bent to turn back the hands of time. So I really think he is toast in the making.

    Now here is some thing I find interesting and it is not backed up by any hard facts at this point but I came away with the odd feeling that Huntsman jooining the fray is also going to sink Romney as well. Not that I thought Mitt would get it but I thought he would give some one a good run but it seemed that every commentator that would really slam Huntsman would then in some way attach Mitt as well. I don’t think either of them is rabidly conservative enough to make it any where in the primaries unless one ofr the other of them has the worlds best organization and one of them backs out in favor of the other. But I’ll stick by my bet that at this point neither one has a ghost of a chance.

  17. Mr. Universe says:

    A couple of observations on the polls that Shortchain and mclever referenced.

    Mormonism doesn’t do well with regular Christians. They tend to view LDS as a cult.

    Most Republicans tend to be regular Christians

    I suspect that these polls don’t take some of those factors into account. Plus it would be interesting to do these polls regionally. I suspect those negative numbers would increase in the south, for example. And decrease in the mountain west.

    I bet if Huntsman was a Democrat, it would be less of an issue.

    There ya go conservatives; red meat for the discussion

  18. Monotreme says:

    Shortchain & mclever,

    Thanks for the links.

    Mule Rider,

    I probably should have included those links in the original article. Thanks for pointing that out. As I sat down to write the article, I thought it was in the category of “everyone knows this” but clearly providing data is always better than making assumptions.

  19. Mr. Universe says:

    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

    Pennsylvania has some pretty whacky laws as well. Pennslyvania also has the nation’s oldest brewery; Yuengling.

    I personally grew up in a dry county. Once a visiting friend from out of state wanted to go knock back a couple at a bar. I told him it was a dry county. He said, “What does lack of rainfall have to do with going to a bar?” I kid you not.

    My hometown finally got over it and decided they wanted the revenue that was flowing into the adjacent counties and an interesting thing happened; not only did they reap the benefits of the ‘Alabama sin tax’ and attract new restaurants but drunk driving convictions plummeted as well. Prohibition just doesn’t pay.

  20. Monotreme says:

    I finally found a poll (from 2007) that has some crosstabs that break down support for and opposition to the LDS religion in general.

    The LDS religion has the highest unfavorables (just above 50%) with: liberals, Republicans, weekly churchgoers, and Protestants.

    I don’t think many liberals will be voting in the Republican primary. I would imagine their beef is with the influence of the LDS church in politics, but I couldn’t say for sure without further data.

    As noted above by mclever, the same Gallup poll showed Republicans less likely to vote for a Mormon for President. It’s not a majority, but it’s a strong enough influence — especially when evangelical Christian and/or libertarian candidates are available, as in a primary — that I think it’s safe to assume that a Mormon candidate would have a more difficult, but not insurmountable, route to the Republican Presidential nomination.

  21. Mr. Universe says:

    According to some polls in Utah (via the WA PO)

    Romney, not Huntsman, top choice among Utah GOP

  22. Monotreme says:

    Huntsman is not loved by the Utah GOP establishment. His success was that he forged a coalition of the more moderate Republicans and the liberals (who had no other choice) in the state.

    I am personal friends with several Utah Republicans who absolutely despise Huntsman.

  23. Monotreme says:

    Karl Rove endorses Huntsman. Or Romney. Sort of.

  24. Mr. Universe says:

    Mornin’ Treme

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