Republican Contenders For Mitt Romney’s Open Us Senate Seat Clash Over Support For Trump

U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)
U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Three of the four Utah Republicans vying for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney sought to portray themselves as the most loyal to former President Donald Trump during Monday’s primary debate, while the likely frontrunner stood out as someone willing to challenge party leadership.

The state's marquee race is expected to test Trump’s broad influence in Utah, one of the few red states that has been hesitant to embrace him. The former president's day-of endorsement of a little-known mayor helped the local official to win the party nomination over nearly a dozen contenders at the April convention, but may carry less weight with voters statewide.

Romney has long been the face of the party’s moderate wing, and his retirement from the Senate opens a door for more conservative candidates. Observers are closely watching whether voters select a successor whose politics align more with Romney’s or with Utah’s other U.S. senator, Trump ally Mike Lee.

While moderate U.S. Rep. John Curtis is considered the favorite going into the June 25 primary, convention victor Trent Staggs and former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, another Trump supporter, could push Utah politics further right in the post-Romney era.

Curtis, Wilson and businessman Jason Walton had already qualified for the primary ballot through signature gathering before the convention and joined Staggs on the debate stage Monday night.

Staggs, 49, repeatedly touted Trump's endorsement and argued the former president was a victim of “political persecution.” Last month, Trump became the first former American president to be convicted of felony crimes when a New York jury found him guilty of all 34 charges in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through a hush money payment to a porn actor.

Staggs criticized Curtis for being the only candidate who had not endorsed Trump's reelection bid and gave him an opportunity to do so. The congressman responded that he had already pledged to support the party nominee, which is now Trump, but offered no real endorsement.

“Serving with him is a degree of difficultly of a 10,” Curtis said. “When President Trump is doing anything that I consider aligned with Utah values, and I can check off a pretty good list, I’m wind at his back. But I’m not going to give him an unconditional yes to anything he wants.”

All four men described their style of conservatism in a similar way, sharing a desire to reduce government spending and limit federal overreach.

Wilson, who is endorsed by Gov. Spencer Cox and other top state officials, insisted he’s already had the greatest impact on Utah residents as a state legislative leader. As House speaker, he oversaw years of tax cuts and budget negotiations that he said will help him fight federal overspending.

The 55-year-old from Kaysville also touted plans to soften federal regulations that he said stand in the way of local officials detaining immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally. He stressed a need to finish Trump's border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and dug up a 2017 interview in which Curtis had said the construction project “carries all of this pent-up racism."

Curtis said the comment was taken out of context and clarified his support for securing the border.

He has been compared to Romney for pushing back against hardliners in his party, particularly on climate change, but has distanced himself from the retiring senator while campaigning for his seat. The 64-year-old Republican congressman and former mayor of Provo began his political career as a county-level Democratic Party official. He’s now the longest-serving member of Utah’s U.S. House delegation and has pitched himself as the only candidate who already understands the inner workings of Capitol Hill.

Staggs, on the other hand, built his base by calling state GOP delegates and courting the endorsements of Trump and many of his allies nationwide. The mayor of Riverton, a suburb south of Salt Lake City, was the first candidate to enter the Senate race, even before Romney announced he was not seeking reelection. However, his convention victory might not translate to success at the ballot box, as Republican Party nominations historically have had little bearing on the decisions of Utah voters.

The winner of the Republican Senate primary will face Democrat Caroline Gleich, a mountaineer and environmental activist, in November. Utah has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1970.

Earlier Monday, U.S. Rep. Celeste Maloy, who is seeking her first full term representing Utah's 2nd District after winning a special election last fall, defended her brief congressional tenure in a debate with challenger Colby Jenkins, who tried to paint her willingness to work across the aisle as kowtowing to Democrats.

Jenkins, a retired U.S. Army officer and telecommunications specialist, beat Maloy at the party convention this year after receiving Lee’s endorsement, but not by a wide enough margin to bypass the primary. He used his time on the debate stage Monday to call for Trump's return to the White House, while Maloy justified her votes for several bipartisan spending packages. The winner of the competitive primary will face Democratic nominee Nathaniel Woodward, a family law attorney, in November.

Republican candidates for governor, attorney general and Curtis' open U.S. House seat will face off in debates on Tuesday and Wednesday.