Spring has finally arrived and the primary election is a month from now, June 25. With Republicans dominant in statewide and congressional races, the primary is where Utahns will likely elect their next U.S. senator and U.S. House members. So, while Utahns are enjoying the weather, politicos are wagging tongues about polls, advertising, debates and endorsements. We join in the frolicking.

Rep. John Curtis released an internal poll showing him with a substantial lead in the U.S. Senate race. Yet the other three candidates are undaunted, running aggressively with varying tactics. What’s the skinny?

Pignanelli: “Changing media behavior may be testing the efficacy of political advertising.” — Nick Corasaniti, New York Times.

My generation and older (aka those who still watch network television) are witnessing the last gasp of 20th-century tactics. Political television commercials are increasingly ineffective, and the current ads are virtually indistinguishable (immigration, anti-President Joe Biden, guns, etc.) In this vacuum of innovation, a preexisting base of support becomes paramount.

In a September 2023 internal poll, Curtis led the pack. Similar results were revealed in an external January survey. Even a discount of Curtis’ recent poll still gives him a strong margin. The other contingent are core former President Donald Trump supporters, which Trent Staggs owns. Thus, the millions spent have not moved the needle. Observers are conjecturing this is essentially a two-person race with four contenders, so the winner only needs about 35%, certainly achievable by Curtis.

Another question haunting political observers is why Brad Wilson has not gained traction with his impressive legislative career and expending millions. The remaining month provides time for trajectories to change, but campaign operatives must understand most voters are not watching, or are bored with, television commercials. Welcome to the 21st century.

Webb: Curtis is clearly ahead, but the large number of undecided voters means Wilson or Staggs has a chance against Curtis in the campaign’s final weeks. Social media and traditional advertising is important in a primary, but grassroots field work is even more valuable.

The Staggs endorsement is a test of Trump’s strength among Utah Republican voters. Staggs is an all-in, ultra-MAGA mini-Trump. Republicans who idolize Trump will likely vote for Staggs. Wilson, who is a terrific person and politician, is in a difficult spot because Staggs has the Trump devotees, while the better-known Curtis enjoys solid mainstream support.

Ultimately, the winning candidate will effectively target definite voters, communicate frequently with them in ways that connect on a personal level and then get them to actually vote.

Endorsements seemed to a play a critical role in the GOP convention battles. Trump’s endorsement of Staggs was clearly helpful in convention. Sen. Mike Lee’s backing of Colby Jenkins over Rep. Celeste Maloy was golden for Jenkins in the 3rd District race. Will Lee or Gov. Spencer Cox influence voters in the Senate race? Do blessings from high-profile officials matter as much in a primary?

Pignanelli: Endorsements are only as good as the approval rating of the endorser and must convey to voters something about the candidate they do not already know. Especially effective are third-party expressions of support from business and community leaders for local-office candidates. The angst among those candidates who are not beneficiaries of a famous politician is understandable, but easily remedied with a strategic focus on messaging and social media while avoiding excessive television commercials (see above).

Webb: Endorsements won’t play as big a role in the primary as they did in the state convention. Lee is playing a risky game by snubbing his colleague Maloy and endorsing Jenkins. There’s no guarantee Jenkins will win in November. Maloy is a fighter and an excellent grassroots candidate. She may long remember Lee’s surprise slap in the face.

Early on, before Curtis got in the Senate race, Cox endorsed Wilson. But it’s unlikely Cox will be highly vocal because he also appears to like Curtis. However, if Trump acolyte Staggs appears to be coming on strong, it could motivate Cox to get more involved in the Senate race.

34
Comments

The Trump and Biden campaigns rejected the official Presidential Debate Commission’s debate plans, and instead developed their own debate calendar and venues. This eliminates Salt Lake City/University of Utah as host for the October match. Should Utahns be upset?

Pignanelli: Many insiders agree, the main reason why sworn enemies Biden and Trump would agree on anything of this magnitude is to keep Robert F. Kennedy Jr. off the stage — a cynical ploy. As a loyal Utahn of Italian and Irish heritage, I will carry this grudge against both for a long time.

Webb: It is unfortunate we won’t host a big presidential debate in Utah, but I’m not much concerned about the Debate Commission snub. More important is seeing that the rules and procedures are fair for both candidates in upcoming debates. Some commentators think Trump got snookered by Biden by instantly agreeing to debates and rules proposed by Biden. A few additional debates would be nice, but Biden is unlikely to agree to more than two.

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.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.