As the 2024 presidential election approaches, Utah Republican Party leaders appear to be losing enthusiasm for former President Donald Trump — and flocking to support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

On Monday, the party announced DeSantis would give the keynote address at their upcoming state convention, although state party Chairman Carson Jorgensen told KSL the invitation wasn’t related to his possible presidential run.

In recent weeks, the Deseret News reached out to the GOP chairs in all 29 Utah counties and asked who they plan to support in the 2024 Republican Party presidential primary. The chairs were offered anonymity to speak candidly. Several of them expressed doubt in Trump’s ability to win reelection and confidence that DeSantis is more “electable,” as one chair said.

Donald Trump talks to Ron DeSantis.
President Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., March 29, 2019. A new survey of Utah Republican county chairs shows DeSantis with an early lead over Trump in the 2024 presidential primary. | Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

“I loved a lot of things Trump did, but shoot, our country’s gonna end up in flames if he’s reelected,” another said.

The Deseret News contacted 22 of the 29 Utah county chairs by phone and asked about their preferred candidate in the upcoming election and any other candidates they are considering. Of the 22, 15 specifically named DeSantis, nine mentioned Trump, and four mentioned Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations. Several others said they were waiting for more candidates to enter the race before sharing their opinion.

But among those who said they would consider supporting Trump, most said they would rather see another candidate.

Respondents were first asked: “Are you committed to supporting a specific candidate in the 2024 presidential election? If so, who?” Only one person responded affirmatively, expressing support for DeSantis. The others were then asked: “What candidates are you considering supporting?” 

The poll was modeled after Politico Magazine’s recent survey of county chairs across the U.S., conducted by University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket. As Masket explained, county chairs offer an effective sneak-peek into potential polling trends for a number of reasons. They are “far more politically attentive” and more likely to actually vote than the average voter; and they’re “both activists and prominent local figures in the party,” close enough to party leadership to be in-the-know, but distanced enough to form part of the grassroots.

“County chairs are the kind of people that successful candidates want on their side during the ‘invisible primary,’” or the period between now and when voting begins, Masket concluded.

County chairs eschew Trump’s ‘baggage,’ want a ‘fresh start’

Each of the county chairs surveyed supported Trump in the 2020 election, but none said they are committed to supporting him in the 2024 primary. Even among the chairs who said they would consider supporting him, most expressed reservations about his character or legacy. One chair said they planned to support “anybody but Trump.”

Many expressed frustration with Trump’s “baggage,” noting that they want a new candidate who can offer a reset for the GOP. “I like winning elections and I think a new face will help us win,” Tom Hansen, the Emery County chair, said. “I’m not necessarily against Trump, but a new face would help us win elections better.” 

Other county chairs expressed similar doubts:

  • “I just think it’s time for somebody else to carry the water. He’s done his good and he’s done his damage. And I think there’s some better candidates who can take us in a more bipartisan direction.”
  • “I really wish he wouldn’t run. He would be my last choice. He’s been there, he has too much baggage. I don’t think he did a bad job. I just feel like we need new blood.”
  • “Well, obviously he lost. And we need someone who can win.”
  • “I just feel like that particular moment has passed and that what is needed now is a fresh start, if you will. What’s done is done. I felt like he should have won and he didn’t. Instead of trying to ram my preferences into reality, I’d rather work with what I consider to be reality. And it’s natural for a person to lose momentum after four years of not being the president, and I just feel like it’s time for another candidate. And I feel like Trump did a very good job, in my opinion. He did what he could. I haven’t heard from him any fresh, new ideas. I think what’s needed are some fresh, new ideas.”
  • “We’ve got to recognize that, you know, did he do some good things? Yes, he did some good things. But I think the bad outweighed the good, the way he divided our country. I think other candidates can do those things.”
  • “I’m not convinced (Trump) has the majority of Republicans to put him on the ballot. So I’m waiting to see if there’s someone who can unite the Republicans.”

Trump ‘couldn’t keep his mouth shut’

Several county chairs expressed frustration with Trump’s brazen personality. Some mentioned his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot or his Twitter activity. “I was not (a Trump supporter in 2016), but quite honestly, the guy surprised me,” said Brian Gorum, the Uintah County chair. “He kept his promises. He put in decent Supreme Court nominees. I just wish he’d quit tweeting.”

  • “I think Trump was a great president, he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I liked him as a president. I think he did a lot of good things for the country. We were much better off as a country, but he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”
  • “I feel like his ship has maybe sailed. I feel like he did a great job. I don’t feel like I agree with everything he’s said publicly. I feel like the topic of Trump couldn’t possibly be more divisive.”
  • “The way he exited the White House is embarrassing to all of us. I don’t blame him for the riots, but he certainly didn’t leave gracefully. There was no grace at all. It was like a spoiled kid who lost a ballgame and threw the ball at the other team.”
  • “He’s just so hyperbolic. He’s a lightning rod when he doesn’t need to be a lightning rod. Sometimes you don’t have to burn everything down. Not everything is a nail, and you don’t always have to use the hammer, I guess. There are other tools you can use.”
  • “Post-presidency, the whole big Jan. 6 thing, I do feel like he could’ve handled that differently. I don’t object to him speaking up and I don’t feel like that was a big insurgency or anything like that, but he definitely riled people up by what he said.”
  • “I don’t support his method of leadership. He’s demonstrated leadership that is contrary to my core beliefs.”

DeSantis is more ‘electable’

When chairs who supported Trump in 2020 said they were open to supporting DeSantis, they were asked what they liked about him. Even several chairs who seemed unfamiliar with DeSantis — one called him “DeSanchez” — expressed interest in his candidacy.

  • “Ron DeSantis has all the same policy beliefs that Trump has. He just doesn’t have the arrogance and the mouth that Donald Trump does, which is revolting.”
  • “I think DeSantis is more electable. There are people who hate Trump so they will do whatever they can to keep him from winning. But both would make great candidates.”
  • “You can take tough stands without being abusive and mean and rude, and that’s what we found out from Gov. DeSantis, that you can be firm and strong and call out the media when they’re not fair, without being hyperbolic about it.”
  • “DeSantis has come up as an equally important candidate.”

A return to 2016?

In the 2016 primary election in Utah, Trump garnered only 13.8% of the vote, losing to both Sen. Ted Cruz (69.4%) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (16.7%). He won the general election with 45.5%, the lowest showing for any Republican presidential nominee in Utah since 1992, when George H.W. Bush won a three-way race against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Trump’s support in Utah was the lowest of any state he won in 2016.

Several prominent Utah Republicans who previously opposed Trump — including Sen. Mike Lee and former Gov. Gary Herbert — later expressed support for him. In 2020, Trump won Utah with 58.2%, but Joe Biden’s showing — 37.7% — was the highest of any Democrat in the state since Lyndon B. Johnson won the state in 1964. 

But Utah Republicans seem to again be distancing themselves from the former president. Last November, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll among registered Utah voters found Trump trailing DeSantis and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

Earlier this month, DeSantis won the straw poll at the Salt Lake County GOP convention. And Don Peay, who led “Utahns for Trump” in 2016, said he’s no longer supporting the former president. “I’ve tuned him out,” Peay told the Deseret News.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘You know what, I lost,’” Peay said.