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Opinion: Will Utahns back Trump for a third time — and how will Trump react if they don’t?

The 2024 presidential election is moving in as candidates declare their intentions to run. Will Trump still lead the GOP?

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Former President Donald Trump speaks in front of a pulpit with an American Flag behind him.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. Trump announced his plans to run for president in 2024, but whether or not he will gain the GOP nomination remains to be seen.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Around this time next year, nearly two dozen presidential primary and caucus elections will already have been held in states across the country. That means the 2024 presidential election is currently heating up with declared and undeclared candidates maneuvering for advantage. We take a look at presidential electioneering in Utah.

The big question for Utah Republicans is whether they will support Donald Trump for a third time. Does he still have his magic among Utah voters, or are Republicans ready to switch loyalty to a younger generation of conservatives?

Pignanelli: “The history of national primary polls more than a year away from party conventions shows that early front runners can have serious problems getting across the finish line.” — National Constitution Center  

An unidentified dynamic is percolating among Utah Republicans regarding the former president. In December 2022, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll revealed the preference of 600 Utahns intending to vote in the GOP presidential primary: 28.9% for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 18.8% for Trump, 10% for former congresswoman Liz Cheney, 7.5% for Sen. Ted Cruz, 6.4% for former Vice President Mike Pence 6.4%, and 3.7% for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

However, a month later OH Predictive Insights released a survey of 302 Republicans: 42% for Trump, 29% for DeSantis, 11% for Pence, 6% for Cheney and others receiving no more than 2%.

Although polling methodologies may partially explain these disparate conclusions, they disclose fluidity amongst Utah’s GOP. Readers are reminded that in November, over 86 Utah elected officials signed a letter urging DeSantis to seek the nomination. Their opinion is reflected by 60% of Utahns who have an unfavorable opinion of Trump — according to the Deseret News poll.

History suggests early strong contenders such as Trump and DeSantis may suffer the fate of Rudy GiulianiGary Hart and Edward Kennedy. Thus, Utah Republicans are likely to prefer a younger conservative.

Webb: I’m an old Republican and I’m ready for a new generation of leaders to take over. That means Trump and President Joe Biden should get out of the way. I’m also tired of losing, and I believe Trump will produce another defeat. He’s been losing, losing, losing. I think most Utah Republicans are ready for a new champion.

I’ve warned many times not to underestimate Trump. But he lost the 2020 election, which he should have won. Then some of his key endorsed candidates in 2022 lost races that Republicans should have won. The GOP would control the Senate today except for Trump’s bad candidates.

And some GOP candidates he opposed won big (like almost the entire slate of GOP candidates in Georgia except Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker). Trump is on a losing streak and it’s not going to get better.

We have excellent prospects to succeed Trump. DeSantis, a true conservative, is just as willing as Trump to take on the establishment and upset the status quo. But he’s not crazy. DeSantis could capture the Trump base unless Trump selfishly tries to burn down the Republican Party if he loses. 

Members of Utah’s congressional delegation have stayed mum about who they will support for president. Gov. Spencer Cox is not a Trump fan and prefers to see a Republican governor win the nomination. Will these sentiments influence presidential politics in Utah? For Democrats, is President Joe Biden the only good option?

Pignanelli: Cruz won the 2016 presidential primary in Utah. He was endorsed by popular local politicians Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mike Lee. So endorsements from Cox, Lee and Mitt Romney will make a difference — especially in a crowded field. Bernie Sanders won the 2016 and 2020 Democrat primaries by large margins. A strong progressive candidate could prevail against Biden.

Webb: Utah’s delegation could split on the presidential race. Clearly, Romney and Cox will oppose Trump. I’d be surprised if congressmen John Curtis and Blake Moore support Trump. I don’t know about Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens or Sen. Lee.

It’s probably wise politically for them to stay neutral for now. No use alienating the Trump base in Utah. Cox is popular enough that he can withstand opposition from Trump supporters. Romney may have trouble.

The Democratic presidential bench is so weak that Democrats have no choice but to support Biden.

Some extreme members of the GOP continue to roil the political waters (Like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene calling for a “national divorce”). U.S. support for Ukraine is also an issue that divides Republicans. Will these issues impact voter sentiment in Utah?

Pignanelli: I am impressed by Republican legislators sporting Ukraine flag lapel pins and distancing themselves from Greene’s silly comments. Because lawmakers usually mirror sentiments percolating among their constituents, their public actions indicate broader trends among the GOP. This is a hopeful sign of common sense.

Webb: Support for Ukraine will be a key issue, and it may divide Utah leaders and voters. I hope the United States will maintain strong support for Ukraine against the Russian dictator who is killing children and committing war crimes. We can’t afford to lose Ukraine to Russia, and we can’t afford a prolonged war. Let’s give Ukraine what it needs to win now.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired 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.