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Opinion: Why many conservative Republicans in Utah don’t want Trump

Deseret News 12/2/2022 Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb
Former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. © Andrew Harnik, Associated Press Former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

Shortly after election day, Utah state Sens. Todd Weiler and Dan McCay recruited other Republicans and released a public statement “encouraging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to open an exploratory committee to consider running for President of the United States in 2024.” This was signed by 86 elected officials ranging from legislators to county commissioners to the state auditor. We take a look at this unprecedented act.

Why did the Utah officials take this action, and is it significant?

Pignanelli: “One of Trump’s messages was that there would be so much winning that people would get tired of winning. Quite frankly, I’m tired of losing,” — Utah Sen. Todd Weiler   

This unusual exercise by so many officials is an intriguing hybrid of a presidential draft movement for one candidate while serving as an eviction notice for another. The timing of the announcement, the night before a declaration of candidacy by former Pres. Donald Trump, is obviously relevant. The usual conditions still exist as these Republicans support most of Trump’s policies but question his personality and strategy. Despite leading an administration with credible successes, his antics are blamed for the losses in 2020 (especially in Georgia) and in 2022.

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Utah Republicans are qualified to make such judgments. Most local GOP candidates did not refer to Trump or election fraud. As a result, they increased their legislative numbers, with the only defeat being a Salt Lake County Council seat. This contrasts with the losses suffered in other regions of the country by Trumpistas who should have won in favorable conditions.

DeSantis is a practical choice who fared well in Florida by appealing to various demographic groups. Conversely, the former president continues to aggravate constituencies (i.e. recent dinner with antisemites).

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The statement demonstrated an understanding by Utah officials of the American psyche prevalent in the midterm elections. This hybrid proclamation is a new twist on the “Utah Way” of pragmatic collaboration. Well done.

Webb: To their credit, a lot of conservative Republicans are recognizing that you can be a past Trump supporter and still not want him to be the GOP nominee for president next year. You can believe he did a lot of good things as president; you can believe he was (and still is) treated unfairly by the Democrats and traditional media; you can appreciate some aspects of his combative style, his willingness to take on the establishment, his ability to connect with average citizens forgotten by the elite; his willingness to be politically incorrect.

You can believe and appreciate all those things and still not want Trump to be the GOP nominee in 2024. You can take that position because you know Trump will lose in 2024 and take a lot of good Republicans down with him. You can take that position because Trump takes all those good things mentioned above to the extreme. Despite those things you used to like about him, Trump is self-destructive. He has fatal flaws. He is self-centered and disloyal. It’s always all about him.

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So, good for the 86 Republicans who signed the statement encouraging DeSantis, not Trump, to seek the presidency next year. Here’s hoping DeSantis (or another non-Trump Republican) wins the nomination.

Considering the lukewarm response to the announcement by Trump that he is seeking the presidency in 2024, will this pronouncement cause national reverberations?

Pignanelli: The letter signed by officials with conservative bona fides signals an organic shift in the GOP. Also, the document provides protection to officials in other states who are questioning both the former president’s abilities to win and do no harm. Thus, the Utah letter will promote similar exercises in many jurisdictions as the questioning of Trump’s candidacy expands. Further, an early push for DeSantis reduces the primary field, eliminating the advantage Trump enjoyed in 2016.

Webb: The statement did get some national publicity because it reflected the sentiment of a lot of Republicans across the country. The big question is whether Republicans can nominate DeSantis or another Republican and still win the votes of the Trump base. They need Trump supporters to win the presidency. DeSantis or another Republican will have to tread delicately, defeating Trump while not alienating his base. DeSantis may be able to do it because he’s basically a non-crazy Trump.

What does this mean for Utah politics in the long run?

Pignanelli: The statement sent an important warning to activists that the rhetoric and tactics used by the former president’s followers will no longer be tolerated. This will have an influence on deliberations in conventions and primaries, as well as legislative deliberations.

Webb: Hardcore Trump voters may try to defeat some of those who signed the statement. So those signers should be thankful they can gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot and not be at the mercy of convention delegates. It’s a bit ironic, because some of those signers have tried to eliminate the signature-gathering option in the Legislature. Now they may be glad they have it.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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