When Jon Huntsman Jr. returned to the United States last weekend, no one was quite sure how serious he was about making a run for the White House—not even his staff.
As U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman had hinted at presidential aspirations, but federal law prohibited him from engaging in overtly political activities while working for the State Department. So his supporters were forced to assemble a campaign-in-waiting without his input and simply hope for the best.
Now, it appears, they can stop wondering: He’s serious.
On Tuesday, after two days of consulting with staffers—some of whom he was meeting for the first time—Huntsman filed paperwork to create a federal political action committee that will allow him to travel and raise money. Insiders say HPAC, as they’ve named it, will serve as a de-facto exploratory committee, and that Huntsman will likely announce his bid this summer. The question now is, can he win?
By most measures, Huntsman seems like a formidable general election candidate: he’s experienced, articulate, and rational enough to appeal to the swing voters who decide presidential elections. But with a moderate record on key issues like climate change and immigration—not to mention that pesky Obama-appointed ambassadorship he just returned from—Huntsman faces an uphill battle in courting the GOP base.
All is not lost for the former Utah governor, though. In truth, it’s something of a misnomer to call Huntsman a wholesale “moderate.” Having served as governor of the reddest state in the union, Huntsman has amassed a heap of red meat accomplishments that would make any Tea Partier’s mouth water—and you can bet his campaign will spend the coming weeks making that message clear. Here are some of his most promising ways to make inroads into the hearts and minds of the Tea Party.
Because of his support for civil unions, it has become common for pundits to label Huntsman a “social moderate.” But when it comes to abortion, he is perhaps the most pro-life candidate in the GOP field, and some prominent abortion opponents are already endorsing him.
The ex-governor of the reddest state in the union has amassed a heap of red meat accomplishments that would make any Tea Partier’s mouth water.
As governor of Utah, Huntsman signed a slew of bills designed to limit abortion. One of them required doctors to describe to women the pain their fetuses would feel if they went through with the procedure; another banned second-trimester abortions in the state and made it a second-degree felony to receive a late-term abortion.
Huntsman even signaled support for an outright abortion prohibition. In 2009, he signed a bill that created a fund to defend against potential lawsuits if and when the Utah legislature follows through on its plans to one day outlaw all abortions in the state. “We are looking at wanting to ban abortion in Utah, period, end of story,” said state Rep. Carl D. Wimmer at the time. “However, we want to do it correctly.”
Now, granted, Huntsman’s personal views on abortion may not be as extreme as his record indicates. As governor, he had to pick his battles with one of the most socially conservative state legislatures in the country. But if Utah lawmakers ever do get around to passing a statewide abortion ban, the state will have a pot of money donated by private citizens—and made possible by Huntsman—to defend it in courts.
Huntsman might be the last Republican you’d expect to count conservative flamethrower Glenn Beck among his family friends. But the Fox News commentator is actually close with Jon Huntsman Sr., the candidate’s father, and speaks of him frequently on air as a “ friend and mentor.”
“He is the only man I have ever met that I believe has the character of George Washington,” Beck said of Huntsman Sr., a wealthy Utah philanthropist who has donated more than a billion dollars of his own fortune to cancer research. Beck’s book, The Christmas Sweater, even has a “special message” tacked on at the end devoted to praising Huntsman Sr.’s charity work, and rags-to-riches life story.
Of course, Beck’s recently announced departure from Fox News and flagging radio ratings have somewhat diminished his potential as a Republican kingmaker, but he still commands an audience of millions. And as Huntsman tries to court a suspicious right wing, a little praise from Beck (not even an endorsement is necessary) would go a long way toward establishing his conservative street cred.
Primary opponents hoping to paint Huntsman as a Second Amendment sellout are out of luck. As governor, Huntsman actually defied public opinion to sign two bills that loosened Utah’s gun regulations. One allowed drivers to keep loaded firearms in their vehicles without a concealed weapons permit, and the other required local businesses to allow cars parked on their property to contain loaded firearms—or provide secure storage for their customers’ guns. The legislation, though unpopular in the state, earned plaudits from pro-gun activists and the NRA, and could be crucial in some southern states where gun rights are a major issue.
When Huntsman faces questions from wary Republicans about his position in the Obama administration, they may actually be handing him an opportunity to tout his fiscal conservatism.
The narrative his campaign hopes to create will go something like this: Huntsman had nothing to do with shaping Obama’s economic policy—but he did have to deal with its consequences. As ambassador, he saw his position weakened when the president pursued fiscal policies that deepened the deficit and required billions of dollars in loans from the Chinese government. Huntsman decided to run because he knew—as he told me in a December interview, possibly testing some talking points—that “in order to project strength abroad, we have to be strong at home.”
Of course, some of this will be spin, but there’s no doubt Huntsman has proven his chops as a fiscal conservative. When he was governor, he pursued a decidedly pro-business agenda that included tax cuts and employment incentives. The China question may be just the chance he needs to bring that record up. It will take some rhetorical jujitsu, but if he manages it, he could succeed in turning his greatest liability into a strength.
McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.