Utah Republicans are making headlines locally and nationally. We explore what it all means.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the keynote speaker at the April 22 State Republican Organizing Convention. This event garnered coast-to-coast media coverage. Why did the well-known contender for the presidency make a stop in Utah, and what does it mean for our state?

Pignanelli: “The only condition (for my marriage ceremony in Disney World) … was no Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in our wedding photos.” — Ron DeSantis  

Republican activists should thank state Sens. Todd WeilerDan McCay and Mike McKell for recruiting almost 100 Utah officials to express public support for DeSantis after the 2022 elections. This famous action prompted his visit, especially because the Florida governor needs love from the Beehive State.

Recently, DeSantis offered a much-criticized speech at Liberty College and endured a humiliating revelation in Washington, D.C., that many in the Florida congressional delegation are supporting Donald Trump. Despite the protesters outside the UVU convention hall, the warm embrace of Utah delegates was essential to his national ambitions. Having watched the speech on livestream, I can attest DeSantis was technically efficient in listing accomplishments as governor while occasionally mentioning the national founders. But additional inspiration is required for a successful campaign.

DeSantis’ pilgrimage to Utah elevates the local GOP as an important factor for those seeking to dislodge Trump. Thus, a parade of famous politicians (i.e. former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and others) will soon arrive to lavish public praise upon Utah for our excellent management, friendly residents and beautiful surroundings.

So, here is a warranted shoutout to Weiler, McCay and McKell for playing state ambassadors.

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Webb: It was a good idea to invite DeSantis and give Utahns an opportunity to size him up. He appears to be the only viable challenger to former President Donald Trump, the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination. But DeSantis has stumbled in his pre-announcement campaign phase and has been put on the defensive by Trump’s savage, personal and often inaccurate, attacks. It’s tough for DeSantis to respond aggressively to Trump’s assaults because he doesn’t want to offend Trump’s loyal followers, who will be needed to beat President Joe Biden.

When DeSantis declares his candidacy in the next few weeks he’ll need to up his game or the Trump juggernaut will bury him in a Florida swamp.

Survey results from Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics-sponsored polls show 47% of Utah voters approve of Sen. Mike Lee’s performance and 44% do not. Sen. Mitt Romney gets a slightly higher 52% approval rating, with 44% of voters disapproving. Three quarters of conservative voters support Lee but only 55% support Romney. What are the implications of the surveys?

Pignanelli: Right wingers ignore Romney’s conservative voting record and remain angry with his votes to impeach Trump. But the polls reveal Romney’s strong support with moderates (69%) that he could recruit to vote in the primary should reelection be announced.

Lee just emerged from a brutal general election and the fallout expressed in the survey is not surprising. But he has a strong base from which he can expand appeals to moderates on some issues.

Webb: The polls show Romney must run an excellent, grassroots-focused primary campaign to appeal to conservatives and win the GOP nomination next year. He must spend most of his time traversing the state, meeting with thousands of ordinary GOP voters. It’s long hours and hard work. If he runs mostly a media campaign and stays in Washington, he loses. Will Romney even want to do it?

Also at the GOP convention, state director for Sen. Mike Lee, Robert Axson, was confirmed as GOP state party chair. How will he do?

Pignanelli: Axson is a friend and former student of mine. He understands the chairman of the state’s leading political party has obligations towards financial integrity, intelligent outreach to voters and appreciation of how Utahns conduct business. He will excel in this new role.

Webb: It’s great to see a younger generation of leaders take over. My only concern is that Axson’s leadership team said they want to “strengthen and preserve” the caucus/convention system. That’s fine, unless it means they want to repeal SB54 and eliminate the dual path to the primary ballot. That would be an historic mistake that would be terribly divisive within the party. It would alienate young people, disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Republicans, send the message that mainstream Republicans aren’t welcome, and severely damage fundraising. They would be at odds with their own governor.

Their goal ought to be to unite the party, emulate Ronald Reagan’s “big tent” philosophy, encourage broader participation — not make the party more ideologically exclusive and right-wing. I hope the new leaders will listen to all Republicans, not just pander to the small number of delegates who tend to be more rigid and politically elitist.

Also, as a protégé of Lee, Axson will need to avoid perceptions of bias against Sen. Romney in the 2024 U.S. Senate nomination fight. Hard feelings no doubt exist after Romney declined to endorse Lee, his fellow Republican, in last year’s general election.

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.