Utah governor’s race exposes GOP strains

Utah governor’s race exposes GOP strains

The race for Utah’s governorship is exposing strains within the GOP, as the party looks to pick its candidate for November’s ballot.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is heading into Tuesday’s primary without his party’s nomination, after the state convention snubbed the popular incumbent and backed primary challenger Phil Lyman, a staunch supporter of former President Trump.

Cox, a more moderate Republican, still looks set to retake his seat in November. But the grassroots opposition points to a deepening divide between candidates tied to the establishment and voters who have embraced Trump’s MAGA movement.

“There’s a sentiment in Utah that’s very moderate conservative, and a nice streak of libertarianism here. But I do think Trump has given rise to a different, far-right sector of the party,” said Utah-based Republican strategist Mike Deaver, adding the state convention — with some 4,000 delegates — represents a “far-right Republican showcase.”

“Are the numbers enough to change the Republican primaries here? … We’ll see that on Tuesday,” Deaver said.

Cox, a former lieutenant governor who won the gubernatorial seat in 2020, enjoys strong approval in Utah, and recent polling suggests he’s the overwhelming favorite to emerge from Tuesday’s Republican primary.

But Cox angered the state GOP delegates, experts say, by opting to gather the 28,000 signatures required to secure his place on the ballot, rather than relying solely on the controversial convention process to get him there — making him eligible to compete Tuesday even without a convention win.

The incumbent has also been subject to intense criticism from the right wing of his party over his vetoes of some conservative bills and his noncommittal stance on Trump — while Lyman has said he’s supported the former president “unapologetically” since 2016.

“There were two key litmus tests among Republican Party state delegates at the convention,” said Taylor Morgan, a strategist based in Salt Lake City. “Did you go ‘convention path only’ to try to get on the ballot? And then, are you a Donald Trump supporter, and did you vote for Trump? If the answer to that was no, then the vast majority of delegates would not even consider that candidate.”

In 2016, the convention also denied the nomination to Cox’s former boss, then-Gov. Gary Herbert, though Herbert went on to easily win the primary and the general.

This year, Derek Brown — a former Utah GOP chair who’s now running for attorney general —won just 16 percent support from the convention he once helmed, as reported by Deseret News. Brown, who is endorsed by Cox, notably gathered signatures and will appear on the primary ballot despite the delegates’ decision.

“It tends to be a fairly anti-incumbent group … especially for candidates who take more of a center-right stance than those who take a hard-right stance,” Damon Cann, head of Utah State University’s department of political science, said of the party delegates.

“They tend to be more activist, they tend to be farther to the right politically — this is a group that booed Mitt Romney famously several years ago,” Cann said.

Lyman won roughly 66 percent of the convention vote back in April, while Cox brought in 35 percent, according to the Utah News Dispatch.

By contrast, a poll conducted earlier this month by HarrisX for Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics found a flipped result — putting Cox at 62 percent support among registered Republicans across the state, while Lyman brought in 25 percent. Another 12 percent were unsure.

The numbers show a not insignificant share of voters jumping behind Lyman, who was pardoned by Trump in 2020 after being convicted of a misdemeanor in connection with protesting in connection with protesting federal closure of Utah’s Recapture Canyon to all-terrain vehicle riders. He has called the pardon “one of the defining moments of my life.”

But Cox — who told NewsNation earlier this year that the country is “ready for something else,” shrugging off both Trump and Biden — is the clear front-runner.

Deaver noted that Trump, whose presence at the top of the ticket looms large on ballots in Utah and beyond, scored a win in the state’s Super Tuesday presidential primary by a narrower margin than some expected. Trump won with 56 percent of the vote, while then-candidate Nikki Haley scored 43 percent.

“I’m not sure anyone was totally surprised that Cox lost at the state convention, but it would be really quite shocking to see a governor with [his] approval ratings and polling numbers at this point not be successful in winning the election next week,” Cann said.

A Cox campaign spokesperson told The Hill that the governor is “confident” Utahns will side with “his message of an optimistic and conservative Utah” on Tuesday.

Along with Cox, Republican Rep. Celeste Maloy, who is trying for a full term in the seat she filled through special election last year, and Rep. John Curtis, the favorite for retiring Sen. Mitt Romney’s open seat, also failed to win the state party nominating convention for their respective races — underscoring the disconnect between delegates and other Republican voters in the Beehive State.

“It’s developed into quite a pattern … where you see these insurgent candidates staging challenges from the right to fairly popular incumbents … who run and even beat these candidates at state convention, but when it comes down to the primary election, and you actually get a representative group of Utahans, then the incumbents tend to do fine,” Cann said.

Utah-based Republican strategist Brian Chapman, who said he has served as a delegate to most state conventions for the last 20 years, said the party has “increasingly become insular” from the rest of the Republican electorate.

“There’s a lot of people in the party that have decided that this is the way it goes, and ‘if you don’t agree with us, you shouldn’t be a Republican,’” Chapman said. “We’re in a bad situation right now within the party, and the internal turmoil is very damaging.”

In addition to ideological differences, party officials and delegates see the relatively new signature-gathering path to ballot access as a strain on the convention’s political power, preferring instead to elevate “convention-only” candidates.

“This election cycle could be very interesting, because looking ahead, I think there’s a very strong possibility, if not highly likely, that every single primary election will be won by a candidate that did not receive the [party’s] official nomination,” predicted Morgan, who worked with the organization who helped implement Utah’s signature path back in 2014.

Cox confronted the convention crowd about the criticisms earlier this spring.

“I’m a little worried about our caucus-convention system. There are a whole bunch of people out there who want to get rid of this. They’re telling us that the caucus convention system has been hijacked by extremists who don’t represent the real Republicans in our state. And I hope that we’re not giving them more ammunition today,” Cox told the audience, prompting audible boos.

He pointed to his predecessor, Herbert, and other Republicans who “got booed here” but went on to win.

“Do you remember why you booed those people? And why are we booing today?” he asked the crowd, rattling off conservative wins on his record, including signing anti-abortion legislation and sending National Guard members to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Maybe you just hate that I don’t hate enough.”

Cox’s race comes as Republicans scramble to replace retiring moderate Romney, an outspoken Trump critic. The former president has backed long-shot conservative candidate Trent Staggs against the more moderate Curtis for the open Senate seat.

The Utah contests are set to be further tests of Trump’s influence as he campaigns to get back into the White House. Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary, though, Republicans are favored to win the seat in the state that’s consistently voted red in its presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races for decades. The victor will face Democrat Brian King, a state lawmaker, in the fall.

Updated at 4:01 p.m.

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