Republican U.S. Senate candidates running to replace Sen. Mitt Romney divided themselves into two camps during a state delegate forum on Wednesday — those who touted their effectiveness within the political system and those who vowed to disrupt it.

Former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, attorney Brent Hatch and Utah’s 3rd District congressman John Curtis leaned heavily on their respective legislative or litigative records in state and federal government.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton and GOP political adviser Carolyn Phippen framed officeholders as enabling a crisis that demanded unprecedented action from political outsiders.

Certified public accountant Josh Randall, Bookroo founder Chandler Tanner and former piano tuner Jeremy Friedbaum also claimed that their status as electoral newcomers would free them to better represent Utah on the national stage.

While the candidates were split, a majority of the roughly 300 state delegates at the Eagle Forum event in Orem seemed united in their preference for antiestablishment pledges over past political experience.

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Political experience: asset or liability?

The division among candidates was put on stark display when asked what made them best equipped to change the way Washington, D.C., runs.

“It’s very risky to elect someone that’s unproven,” Wilson said. “What we need is someone that’s been tested and trusted to do the work that we care about to go back and represent Utah’s values in the U.S. Senate.”

Wilson repeatedly referenced his tenure as one of Utah’s top lawmakers, pointing to a series of historic tax cuts, an abortion trigger law, a transgender sports ban in schools and a best-in-the-nation economic outlook.

Hatch, the son of Utah’s longest serving senator, the late Orrin G. Hatch, underscored his longtime involvement in the Federalist Society and his familiarity with the workings of the nation’s political elite.

“I’ve worked in all three branches in the federal government. ... Nobody in this race has that type of experience,” Hatch said.

His resume includes a clerkship for legendary conservative judge Robert Bork, legal positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and a private firm dealing with high profile civil cases, Hatch said.

The way Hatch sees it, years spent gaining on-the-job training carries much greater weight than trained talking points.

“A lot of people on the stage today are talking about ideals and what they’ll do,” Hatch said. “To be in the game, you have to know how to play the game.”

But for some delegates, the ability to smoothly navigate the country’s governing institutions is a disqualifying factor. Austin Gray, a Davis County delegate, and Heather Fry, an Orem Republican, said they were looking for the opposite.

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“I think Utah is sick of game players,” Fry said. “We want people who are going to be more loyal to the principles and values of the Constitution and honoring the people that they represent.”

Fry said Staggs, Phippen and Walton, more than any other candidates, convinced her they would bring that kind of commitment to Congress. Gray shared Fry’s affinity for Staggs. Gray was also impressed by Tanner and Randall, who he said best articulated a limited government philosophy.

“Getting good things done can often mean not doing bad things and getting power back into people’s hands,” Tanner said, emphasizing the importance of cutting down on federal regulation and turning the control of public land and natural resources over to local residents.

Randall listed things he committed not to do as Senator, including vote for deficit spending or debt ceiling suspensions.

“Faith, family and fiscal discipline. This is who I am,” he said. “You get what you vote for.”

Gray, who held a notepad filled with pages of notes comparing and contrasting candidates, condensed his criteria into one binary rubric: “Are you going to play into the game to be able to get what you want, versus standing up to it and be able to bring our values back.”

A pitch against the status quo

Staggs blamed what he sees as the country’s biggest problems — $34 trillion in debt and illegal immigration — on those who currently sit in positions of power.

“The quality that you should be looking for as a delegate, and what you should be looking for as citizens, is who has demonstrated the willingness to stand up and fight the establishment,” Staggs said.

Staggs said he has done that as mayor of Riverton, where he opposed COVID-19 restrictions and high density housing. He also pointed to endorsements from national figures like Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville.

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Phippen spoke about her time working to ban social credit scores under former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and rein in federal agencies under Sen. Mike Lee. But she said those experiences taught her the importance of breaking with the status quo and not electing those who have “spent months and years planning for their next political office.”

“Too often, we elect really good people to represent us who are very easily fooled by the establishment narrative coming, oftentimes, out of institutions paid for and funded with our tax dollars, by the way, and that work to undermine everything that we love and care about,” Phippen said.

Walton said that success in the private sector provided him with more valuable skills than political positions and that it shielded him from being “bought and ... sold.”

“With the problems that I see happening in America right now, a politician is not the answer. We need more business people. We need business leaders exactly like Donald Trump,” Walton said.

‘Cheap talk’ vs. conservative record

Wilson pushed back on claims that a background in legislative leadership will prevent him from “(fighting) for the things that we value in this state.” On the contrary, he said, a legislative record is the surest way to know whether a candidate follows through with campaign promises.

“One of the themes of this election has been, ‘talk is cheap,’” Wilson said. “People don’t want to have one thing told to them on the campaign trail and have someone show up in Washington and act totally different.”

At the close of the forum, Utah Republican Party chair Rob Axson announced that Curtis, who was occupied with congressional duties, would address the audience through a prerecorded video.

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Axson had to ask repeatedly for quiet as several dozen people in the audience began yelling for the video to be turned off.

Curtis said during his seven years in the U.S. House he had shifted more public lands to Utah than anyone in state history. He also highlighted his leadership roles in committees dealing with energy permitting reform and his recent votes against omnibus spending packages.

In closing, Axson encouraged the candidates to adhere to the Constitution and GOP platform.

“Fidelity to those two things will prepare you to represent the people out here who deserve you to go back to Washington D.C. and be who you told us you would be,” Axson said.

When is Utah’s Senate election?

Wednesday’s event was also attended by Senate candidate Brian Jenkins, who arrived as the meeting was ending. Clark White dropped out of the race before the event.

The Republican state convention will be held on April 27. Candidates who receive more than 40% of delegate votes, or who have gathered enough verified signatures, will appear on the primary ballot on June 25.

The GOP nominee who emerges from the primary will face off against the nominees from other registered political parties in the Nov. 5 general election.

The Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Utah include mountaineer Caroline Gleich, Archie Williams III and Laird Hamblin.