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Gov. Gary Herbert called a group of high-power business leaders, lobbyists and politicos together Wednesday morning for breakfast and to send a clear message: I'm running again in 2016.
"He was saying there's a lot of speculation out there, people are talking about this. I just want to be very clear: I am running. I am announcing that today," said a source who attended the breakfast and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting.
The breakfast at The New Yorker was a who's-who of Utah's political power brokers. Businessmen like developer Kem Gardner and banker Scott Anderson were on hand; high-profile lobbyists like Frank Pignanelli, Ken Bullock, Howard Headlee and Spencer Stokes; Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Herbert's new Chief of Staff Justin Harding were in attendance; and top political operatives like Dave Hansen, pollster Dan Jones and Herbert's most trusted political adviser Bob Henrie were at the meeting.
The message, according to those who were there, was to keep people Herbert thinks may be key to a 2016 bid from jumping ship for any of those who might be looking at their own gubernatorial bid.
"[Herbert said], 'We're not going to make an announcement until later in the year, but we know many of you are asking questions. It's my intention to run for governor,'" said another attendee, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It was very obvious the intent was that I know you're being solicited by other candidates, but I want you to know I'm running and I need you," the source said. "It was definitely a message of, 'I'm running again. If you're thinking of leaving the farm you'd better come back."
Overstock.com president Jonathan Johnson has been eyeing a challenge to Herbert in 2016 - whether the governor seeks re-election, or not. Likewise, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who is retiring from the Legislature at the end of the year, has been rumored for more than a year to have interest in the office.
Anderson, the president of Zions Bank, addressed the gathering, touting Herbert's accomplishments in office and said the governor will need another term because he will need until 2020 to complete his most important initiatives.
Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert, said the governor did not announce he was running Wednesday. Instead he said he is keeping his options open and leaning toward another bid.
One source, told of the official explanation, burst into laughter. "They're not being honest. It was unequivocal," said another. Multiple sources independently said the governor was explicit that he will run. "His words were: I am running and I need your support," said an individual who was at the breakfast.
Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said Herbert has a lot working in his favor.
"He's in a very good position, politically, in terms of his favorability and popularity. He has high approval ratings," Monson said. "I think he's in a good position and I suspect that part of announcing so early is to allow other people to follow a different path."
Herbert had a 68 percent favorability rating in the last Utah Voter Poll, conducted in April by BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Lockhart had a 25 percent approval rating in the poll.
"While there is uncertainty in the air, other people may announce, hoping to influence his decision. At this point, if someone decided to go for it, they're announcing that they're challenging a sitting governor," Monson said. "That's quite a different proposition."
Herbert inherited the office in August 2009, when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman accepted the post of U.S. Ambassador to China. Herbert won election in 2010 and again in 2012. If he is elected in 2016, he would become just the third governor to win three times joining Calvin Rampton and Mike Leavitt. While Rampton served three full terms. Leavitt left early in his third to join President George W. Bush's administration.