Republican Utah voters have a complicated relationship with President Donald Trump. Utah’s GOP candidates for governor all say they support him but are navigating that differently.
Trump was a controversial candidate when he ran for president in 2016. Several Utah politicians criticized him, and he came in last in the state’s Republican caucuses. Then, in November, he won the state, but with just 45% of the vote.
But gubernatorial candidate and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes has been on the president’s side since the beginning. And he’s made it a campaign issue.
A video posted to his campaign website features a clip of Trump saying, “An original supporter. You always remember those. Greg Hughes!”
Hughes isn’t just flaunting his long-standing support of the president. He’s also attacking his fellow candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox for being an outspoken critic of Trump before pivoting to say he supports him. He even has a page on his website dedicated to tweets from Cox criticizing Trump.
“People are willing to express their strong opinions, but not in an election season,” Hughes said. “I think it's important that we are consistent, that we say what we mean.”
Cox, for his part, said he doesn’t agree with President Trump’s style of politics, but supports him because of how he’s worked with the state.
“It's the things we've been able to do together and accomplish here in the state of Utah,” Cox said. “We have a good working relationship and that will continue under a Cox Henderson administration.”
But Salt Lake City voter Phillip Kioa said Hughes’ support of the president is a big reason he’s supporting him.
“They're kind of like a Romney: talk like that when it's time for election and when you get into office, they’ll probably pretty much … be going against Trump,” Kioa said.
Sen. Mitt Romney criticized Trump during his 2016 campaign and was the only Republican senator to vote to convict him during the impeachment trial in February.
West Jordan Republican Desiree Frederick said she doesn’t support the president but she’s more concerned about candidates' work with the state government.
“We’re a state in the republic,” Frederick said. “And we have our leader, our governor, and what his agenda is and how he runs his budget through the Legislature.”
University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank said Cox, as well as former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Utah GOP Chair Thomas Wright, generally try to keep quiet about President Trump.
“What I would call a kind of Utah Republican approach to Trump,” Burbank said, “which is to recognize that he is the incumbent Republican president. But at the same time, not wanting to get too close, in fear of the president somehow doing something that might hurt them come election time.”
So, why is Hughes making this a big campaign issue?
“It seemed like a risky strategy,” Burbank said. “On the other hand ... the reason for raising that as an issue is to hopefully peel off some of those voters who might like Cox, but they like the president, too.”
The Republican primary is June 30 and the winner will go up against Democratic candidate Chris Peterson in November.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson