May 30th, 2024

Utah GOP nominates Lyman for governor’s race, but incumbent Cox still seen as primary favorite

By Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press on April 27, 2024.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – State Rep. Phil Lyman was selected as the Utah Republican Party’s gubernatorial nominee Saturday, though political observers say incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox remains the likely favorite in the upcoming primary.

Lyman, a former county commissioner turned legislator, is best known for organizing an illegal ATV ride in 2014 in protest of a federal land decision.

As a hardline conservative, he appealed to convention delegates who also tend to skew farther right, but Utah GOP voters generally prefer moderates in statewide elections.

That’s why Cox, a more moderate Republican who took office in 2021, is seen as well positioned for the June 25 primary. He has gathered enough signatures to qualify for that ballot despite not getting the nod from the convention.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Moderate Republicans, who often have been successful with Utah voters, are looking to stave off farther-right challengers at Saturday’s state GOP convention, which typically favors the most conservative contenders.

All eyes are on the crowded race to succeed U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, the state’s best-known centrist Republican, who often made waves for opposing former President Donald Trump and other leaders of the party.

Nearly 4,000 delegates at the convention will select the party’s nominee, though there is no guarantee their pick will win the June 25 primary and end up on the ballot in November.

The pool of nearly a dozen Republicans vying to replace Romney includes a congressman, a Trump-backed mayor, a former state legislative leader and the lawyer son of Utah’s longest-serving U.S. senator. While some have sought to align themselves with farther-right figures such as Trump and Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee, others have distanced themselves in an effort to appeal to the widest swath of voters.

“This seat gets to be sort of a flashpoint between the two major factions of the party in the state,” Utah State University political scientist James Curry said. “On one hand you have the more moderate faction that Romney really embodied, not just here but nationwide, versus the more pro-Trump faction that often hasn’t been as successful with Utah voters when there’s been a viable moderate option.”

Trump made a last-minute endorsement in the Senate contest for Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, writing Saturday morning on his Truth Social platform that Staggs is a “100% MAGA” candidate who knows how to create jobs, stop inflation, grow the economy and secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump’s endorsement could carry Staggs, 49, through the convention weekend but may not translate to success at the ballot box. Republican Party nominations historically have had little bearing on who Utah voters choose to represent them.

Staggs supporter Eric Buckley, a Davis County delegate, celebrated the endorsement and said he’s confident it will be well received by Utah voters. Buckley said he already had vetted the Senate contenders months before and chosen to back Staggs – the first to enter the race even before Romney announced he wasn’t seeking reelection.

“It was his stance on the corruption in D.C. that exists and his promise to stand up against the moderate Republicans and the Democrats pushing through their agenda without any type of resistance,” Buckley said of his support for Staggs.

Even some GOP delegates who support other top contenders – former state House Speaker Brad Wilson and U.S. Rep. John Curtis – said they may vote for Staggs as the party nominee because he is a convention-only candidate, meaning he has not collected signatures to guarantee his spot on the primary ballot. Delegates often reward those who hang their fate on the convention process, rather than circumventing the vote.

Both Wilson and Curtis already have collected enough signatures to qualify for the primary regardless of Saturday’s outcome. Staggs and other convention-only candidates must earn at least 40% of votes Saturday to advance.

Tim Lindsay, a Cache County delegate who attended the convention wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, said although he supports Trump, the former president’s endorsement will have little impact on how he votes. His vote will go to “the most conservative candidate” who has not collected signatures.

“That’s a cheap way out,” Lindsay said of signature gathering. “I respect a candidate who respects the convention process.”

Wilson, 55, has endorsed Trump’s reelection bid and promises to be a “conservative fighter” on Capitol Hill. His elaborate expo booth in the convention hall featured a tractor plowing through a pile of cinder blocks labeled the “Biden Agenda.”

Curtis, 63, who is seen as the more moderate of the two frontrunners, has been compared to Romney for pushing back against hardliners in his party, particularly on climate change. He is expected to have broad appeal among primary voters.

Davis County delegate Jonathan Miller, who donned a “Team Mitt” baseball cap, said Curtis is his pick to replace the retiring senator because he already has proven himself in Congress as someone who works across the aisle to get things done.

Nominees for governor, Congress and other offices also will be selected Saturday.

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