SALT LAKE CITY – Former ambassador and current Republican candidate for Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. said Wednesday he has tested positive for COVID-19.
Huntsman said he has “classic symptoms” of the illness caused by the coronavirus, and will isolate himself while his campaign pushes through with less than three weeks before Election Day. Five staffers also have been infected.
“Like so many others, my goal is to keep my family safe,” he said in a tweet. “Though isolated temporarily, we’ve never been more energized in this important race for governor. The work goes on!”
Huntsman previously served as Utah governor until 2009, when he left to be the U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama. Following a brief presidential run during the 2012 cycle, he served as ambassador to Russia under President Donald Trump before resigning and mounting his campaign for governor.
Huntsman, 60, is one of four Republicans on the June 30 primary ballot. He is considered a front-runner, but is running neck-in-neck with a lieutenant governor with a higher profile during the pandemic response and a candidate gaining on the right with calls to reopen the economy more quickly.
Meanwhile, another staffer on a competing campaign also caught the virus and is in self-quarantine along with two others that person came into contact with.
Primary ballots began going out this week in the election being conducted entirely by mail. It's the first wide-open governor's race in Utah in more than a decade. Polls indicate many voters remain undecided and it's hard to say how the virus news could affect the outcome, said Brigham Young University political-science professor Chris Karpowitz.
“It significantly complicates efforts by the campaign to make that last push toward Election Day,” he said. Still, many voters will be likely be empathetic as the pandemic continues, he said.
Huntsman's running mate, Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, could represent the campaign in person, since she has had less contact with the affected staffers.
His daughter Abby Huntsman left her role as a host on the TV show “The View" to join the campaign. It was not immediately clear if she had been affected by the virus. Members of the Huntsman family are still awaiting test results, including one who is at a higher risk, the candidate said in his video message.
The family is among the most well-known in Utah. Jon Huntsman Sr. was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
Huntsman went into quarantine last week, canceled all his public appearances and ordered his office cleaned after learning of the staff member’s positive test. The staffers and their positions have not been identified.
He attended a campaign event in the small northern Utah city of Logan shortly before getting the news. It was held outside to allow for social distancing, though a number of people did not wear masks, the Herald Journal newspaper reported. A photo shows Huntsman shaking hands with an attendee, neither wearing a mask.
The number of coronavirus cases has been trending upward as the state moves toward re-opening the economy under pressure from conservatives who cite the heavy economic toll of business shutdowns.
Huntsman's positive test came after a previous incorrect negative result.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
His other opponents are Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox state House Speaker Greg Hughes and former state GOP chair Thomas Wright.
An unidentified Wright staffer also tested positive for the virus on Monday after being exposed through his father, who is a first responder, campaign officials said. The staffer had come into contact with one colleague and a volunteer over the previous week.
Cox, who has been criticized for the state's pandemic-response, tweeted he was devastated to hear about the diagnosis and praying for the Huntsman family.
Hughes, a conservative who has called for scaling back coronavirus rules and considers Huntsman a friend, tweeted his hopes for a quick recovery.