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DeSantis draws excitement — and protestors — at Utah GOP convention

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the keynote address at the Utah GOP Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, April 22, 2023.
Saige Miller
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the keynote address at the Utah GOP Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, April 22, 2023.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis received a warm welcome from Utah Republicans at the state GOP organizing convention on Saturday, April 22, 2023. The UCCU Center at Utah Valley University in Orem wasn’t a packed house, but attendees were vocal.

Nearly 2,500 State delegates for the Utah GOP gathered to select new party leadership and hear from elected officials, including keynote speaker DeSantis.

Testing the 2024 waters

DeSantis is reportedly weighing a presidential run in 2024. In his keynote address in Orem, he touched on a slew of conservative talking points, touted his successes and leadership in Florida since taking office in 2019 and drew parallels between Florida and Utah.

“People understand, if you want a well-managed budget, if you want a sound economy, you’ve got to embrace conservative policies,” DeSantis said. “Utah has shown that and Florida has shown that.”

Many of DeSantis’ remarks gained positive feedback from the crowd, especially when he mentioned pushing back against the “woke agenda,” like Environmental Social and Governance, or ESG.

“We believe that ESG is fundamentally wrong and we need to stop the woke from taking over our economy,” he said.

ESG is a decades-old investing philosophy that takes into account things like a company’s environmental policies, the diversity of its workforce or how the company is run. The practice has recently come under scrutiny from some conservatives who see it as putting progressive policies ahead of profits.

The crowd applauded DeSantis’ accomplishments as the governor of Florida, like flipping previously blue counties red in the 2022 election and stripping Disney of its self-governing status.

But even with cheers from the stands, there were mixed signals on whether delegates would vote for DeSantis in a presidential primary.

Bonnie Lubbers, a Davis County delegate, said DeSantis is her “top person” for the presidential election, but she said his potential stint in the White House would come with a trade-off.

“I would love to have him run for president,” she said. “But I love what he's doing [in Florida] and I feel like he's raising the bar for other governors. So it's kind of a mixed thing. I want him to stay where he's at and see how far he can take Florida and be an example.”

Lubbers’ sentiments were echoed by other delegates, as well. With former President Donald Trump already running to retake the presidency, his personality still looms large over the GOP base.

“I would hope that [DeSantis] would be the candidate,” said fellow Davis County delegate Ken Nelson. “But Mr. Trump did a great job. He has a past record that says he did a good job.”

Other delegates enjoyed his speech but weren't convinced they would vote for DeSantis over Trump or another Republican name.

”I would be interested,” said Weber County delegate Pam Brown. “I don't know for sure if I'd vote for him, but I would be definitely interested.”

Still, DeSantis proved to be a popular choice to headline the convention.

“I like the fact that he recognized some of the things we're doing here in Utah,” added Morgan County’s Brad Winn. “I mean, he talked a lot about what they're doing in Florida, which I think is great. But I think Florida can learn a lot more from Utah than he recognized.”

Protests against DeSantis

Not everyone was thrilled with DeSantis’ presence.

Around 100 people gathered on a bridge near the UVU convention center to protest his visit to Utah. The crowd marched toward the entrance of the convention venue, chanting phrases like “Hey hey, ho, ho, Ron DeSantis has got to go,” and “No Ron, no KKK, no fascist USA.” Protesters held signs that read “In Utah, we are gay,” and “Ban DeSantis, not books.”

They were objecting to what they believe are fascist policies enacted by the Florida governor, such as prohibiting transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care and the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans the discussion of sexuality and gender in public school classrooms.

Once the throng arrived at the UCCU Center steps, they condemned Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s support for DeSantis as well.

DeSantis Protestors
Saige Miller
Around 100 people protested Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at Utah Valley University for the state GOP convention on April 22, 2023.

Taryn Hiatt, a master's student at UVU, joined the protest to show support as an LGBTQ ally. She said it’s concerning that the Utah GOP invited DeSantis to give the keynote speech, because “if this is the person that they want to hear from and mimic policy, we're in trouble.”

Hiatt added DeSantis doesn’t represent the political ideologies of an important voting block in the state.

“More of us Utahns are as purple as the day is long,” she said. “And we don't stand for this. We don't stand for people being targeted and especially are our most vulnerable, like our trans youth.”

Brent Summers showed up to the protest to advocate for his LGBTQ friends and denounce DeSantis. He believes DeSantis is “the biggest threat to America” right now because “he is using all of his power to marginalize communities directly.”

Summers warned state Republicans that amplifying the voices of people like DeSantis won’t “bring millennials and Gen Z to the voting booth to vote for Republicans.”

New Utah GOP leadership

This was Carson Jorgensen’s last event as the chair of the Utah GOP. He announced in March that he was stepping down from the position after serving one term. Jorgensen has hinted at a run for office but has yet to publicly announce anything.

“As someone on Twitter said recently, ‘I can’t wait until he’s no longer a part of Utah politics because I’m tired of looking at his dumb hat,’” Jorgensen said about his trademark cowboy hat. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, random Twitter user, but the hat is here to stay.”

The new party chair, Robert Axson, ran unopposed. He said he has goals of keeping Utah red for future generations but recognized there is a lack of Gen Z Republicans, along with unaffiliated voters the party needs to reach to bolster influence.

“Our state is the youngest state per capita in the entire country,” he said. “So if Republicans, or any political party for that matter, can't connect with the younger generation, we'll see the consequences of that here in Utah sooner and more severely than anywhere else.”

He said his plan to include younger generations into party conversations is to “invite them to be part of the solution.”

Jordan Hess ran unopposed as party vice-chair. Stafford Palmieri was elected state party secretary and McKay Newell won the race for state party treasurer.

Non-binding resolutions

Delegates voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution to only display the old state flag at GOP party events, like the state convention. It came after Utah lawmakers adopted a new flag during this year’s legislative session. Gov. Spencer Cox signed the measure into law, and it has survived a referendum to repeal it after opponents failed to submit the required number of signatures by an April 12 deadline.

In addition to the flag, delegates also widely approved a non-binding resolution supporting the party’s caucus-convention candidate nominating process. Candidates have had the ability to bypass the convention nominating process by gathering signatures since 2014, and the law has been a target of GOP faithful ever since. In 2018, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney got on the ballot by way of signature gathering.

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