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Trump or DeSantis? It’s early yet, but Utah Republicans are thinking about it

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a New Hampshire Republican Party dinner, Friday, April 14, 2023, in Manchester, N.H.
Charles Krupa
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a New Hampshire Republican Party dinner, Friday, April 14, 2023, in Manchester, N.H.

When Carson Jorgensen, the outgoing chair of the Utah Republican Party, selected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to deliver the keynote speech at the state GOP’s Organizing Convention, Jorgensen said it was “the biggest name” he could find that “wasn’t really diving into the presidential side” of things.

At least not formally.

It’s no secret that DeSantis is rumored to be flirting with a presidential run and that Utahns have a strained relationship with former President Donald Trump. While Trump won Utah in both of his presidential elections, he received only 45.5% of the vote in 2016. That’s the lowest amount of state support for a Republican president since George W. Bush in 1992.

As 2024 approaches, there are signs that Utah Republicans are yet again looking elsewhere for a candidate. In November 2022, more than 80 state-elected officials signed a letter encouraging DeSantis to explore throwing his hat in the presidential ring. Among those was Utah Republican Sen. Todd Weiler.

He said the intent behind his signature was to “let Republicans know we have options besides Donald Trump.”

Weiler thinks it’s time the party moves on from Trump. He attributes President Joe Biden’s 2020 election win to voters “coming out of the woodwork” to vote against Trump.

“I don't think that [Biden winning] would happen if the Republicans ran a different candidate,” he said.

A recent Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows if there were a presidential primary today, the Florida governor would win 21% of Utah Republicans' support. Only 16% said they would pick Trump and 20% were unsure of who they would select. On the flip side, FiveThirtyEight nationwide polling shows Trump would beat DeSantis in a primary.

Jorgensen said the decision to select DeSantis to speak at the state convention wasn’t influenced by the letter sent by his fellow Republicans, nor was it meant to undermine Trump’s already up-and-running campaign. Rather, it was because DeSantis is a national voice “who's done a fantastic job for conservative principles in his state,” and “has really changed the voting demographic” of Florida.

Jorgensen pointed to DeSantis’ stance on immigration as an example. DeSantis gained notoriety on the right for sending immigrants in Florida to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy Massachusetts island.

“He's made a strong stance across the country with pushing back against the federal government,” Jorgensen said. “Here in Utah, that's really what people want to see more of. They want to see kind of that crack back against the Fed.”

To Weiler, Utah Republicans didn’t have a problem with Trump’s policy; they took issue with his personality and ethics. Whereas, Weiler said DeSantis is “smarter and savvier” than Trump and thinks DeSantis has taken note that Utahns “are kind of soft” on their Trump support.

Weiler and Jorgensen agree it’s too soon to tell if DeSantis paying a visit to Utah will flip support away from Trump.

Jorgensen believes Trump’s base is “pretty solid” in Utah and it “would be a hard race to navigate” if DeSantis makes a formal announcement that he’s challenging the former president.

Jason Perry, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the March poll indicates Republicans that identify as “very conservative” would vote for Trump over DeSantis by 11 points.

“This says a lot about where people might be and particularly where delegates are because they tend to be more conservative than mainstream Republicans,” he said.

But 35% of those who identify as “somewhat conservative” overwhelmingly picked DeSantis.

To Perry, DeSantis speaking to Utah Republicans is an opportunity for him to test his political messaging and gauge how they respond.

While Utah Republicans may be divided on who they believe should be the next president, Weiler said DeSantis’s appearance at the convention could influence voters.

“I certainly think it won't hurt him. I think it will help him, especially if he gives a barnburner speech and gets the delegates excited,” Weiler said.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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