The campaign event at Riverton High School Thursday night had all the trappings of a Donald Trump rally minus the man himself.

A crowd, several hundred strong, speckled with several dozen MAGA-red ball caps, clapped and cheered for U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs as he took the stage alongside the self-described “Trumpiest Congressman,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

The assortment of state delegates, Republican primary voters and Utah residents — from Tremonton to St. George — were gathered to hear Gaetz’s endorsement of Staggs, the mayor of Riverton, who is one of 11 Republicans running to replace Sen. Mitt Romney.

“We’re losing a lot of key fights in Congress because we don’t have enough conservatives willing to stand up to prevailing thinking,” Gaetz told the Deseret News after the event. “And I saw in Trent Staggs someone who used local government leadership to push back in a brave way and we need to be able to draw on that in Washington a great deal more.”

When asked whether Gaetz’s endorsement would sway his vote, one front-seat attendee, donned in a “Ultra MAGA” T-shirt, delivered a one-word response: “Abso-freakin-lutely.”

Since entering the race in May, Staggs has sought and received endorsements from some of Trump’s biggest allies — Gaetz, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake and former Trump administration official Kash Patel, to name a few.

Each endorsement has served as a step toward the endorsement most, if not all, Utah Senate candidates are quietly wishing for or actively seeking: Trump’s.

Utah’s other Republican Senate hopefuls include 3rd District congressman John Curtis, former state House Speaker Brad Wilson, the son of Utah’s longest-serving senator Brent Hatch, CEO of Moxie Pest Control Jason Walton, conservative political adviser Carolyn Phippen, and five others.

Regardless of their disparate political strategies, however, one political reality hangs over the race, that “Trump’s endorsement remains the most valuable currency in Republican primaries,” as Politico said of the results in last week’s Ohio GOP contest — where a Trump-endorsed candidate rose from obscurity to primary victory.

Betsy Barker wears a MAGA hat as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz endorses Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs in his U.S. Senate run Thursday, Mar 28, 2024 at a campaign event in Riverton. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Will Trump endorse a Senate candidate in Utah?

But despite Staggs’ efforts, several political insiders said Trump is unlikely to put his thumb on the scale in Utah.

“I don’t think there will be an endorsement in this race before the primary,” a close associate of the former president told the Deseret News on the condition of anonymity.

The reason is twofold, according to the Utahn, who speaks regularly with Trump. First, “he’s not following this race particularly closely” because “he’s confident one way or another that there’s going to be a Republican win.” And, second, “he doesn’t want to endorse someone who he doesn’t think is going to win.”

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll conducted in January found just over half of Utah Republican voters were unsure of who they would support in a primary election. Among voters with a favored candidate, Curtis led with 18%, followed by Hatch with 14%, Wilson with 8% and Staggs with 3%.

Staggs was the first candidate to enter the race and the only one to make an announcement before Romney bowed out. Wilson formed an exploratory committee around the same time. By the end of 2023, Staggs trailed Wilson and Curtis in fundraising.

As of Dec. 31, 2023, Wilson had raised $1.7 million and loaned himself $1.8 million. And Curtis, who had not yet made his Senate bid official, raised $1.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission data. During the same filing period, Staggs raised $700,000 and loaned himself $90,000.

In the new year, outside political action committees have reserved over $1.8 million in advertisements for Hatch’s campaign and $1 million for Curtis’. The campaigns of Wilson and Walton have also had the resources to direct $433,000 and $290,000, respectively, toward ads.

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Could a Trump endorsement decide the Utah Senate race?

If Trump were to endorse a candidate it would likely affect the outcome of the election.

“At the end of the day, a Donald Trump endorsement is worth 28 to 35% in Utah in a primary,” veteran Utah politico Chuck Warren told the Deseret News. “For the convention, it’s probably worth 50%.”

If a Trump endorsement came, it would likely be after the state convention on April 27 and two to three weeks before the primary on June 25, said Warren, who’s resume includes working on the campaigns of Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, Ron DeSantis for governor and for multiple presidential candidates.

Leading up to the Ohio Senate primary on March 20, the Trump-endorsed candidate Bernie Moreno was polling neck-and-neck with more moderate state Sen. Matt Dolan, both at 30%. On election night — following a Trump rally in support of Moreno — Trump’s pick won with 51% of the vote compared to Dolan’s 33%.

In Utah, “it would have an impact, I believe, in both the convention and the primary, if he endorsed,” said Spencer Stokes, president of lobbying firm Stokes Strategies and Lee’s former chief of staff.

With Wilson, Walton, Curtis and Hatch on track to hit the 28,000 signature-gathering threshold — and Staggs and Phippen working to draw the attention of state delegates — the Republican primary ballot could potentially have more than four choices.

This means the eventual winner could emerge with just 30-35% of the vote, Stokes said, similar to what the state saw in its 2020 gubernatorial election where Gov. Spencer Cox won with 36% of the vote in a four-way race.

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Trump proxy endorsements?

“I don’t think there’s a Trump endorsement coming,” said Adam Jones, who oversaw Utah Rep. Burgess Owens’ 2020 campaign. “But he is sending his surrogates — and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s sending his surrogates — so I think he wants Trent (Staggs) to win.”

Jones, like Stokes and Warren, is not involved in any of the U.S. Senate campaigns in Utah this cycle.

But an endorsement from the former president’s congressional counterparts is no guarantee of Trump blessing the Staggs campaign.

In last week’s Illinois House GOP primary, Trump surprised some by endorsing the incumbent who narrowly beat a candidate endorsed by Gaetz.

According to Warren, anything less than a Trump endorsement will make no difference in the convention or primary.

“They will have zero impact,” Warren said of Staggs’ endorsements. “They may help a couple of delegates, but those endorsements really carry no weight on election day.”

But, Warren and Stokes noted, endorsements from nationally recognized conservatives, like Tuberville and Gaetz, will help Staggs with small-dollar donations — something Staggs needs if he wants to become a more serious contender for a Trump endorsement.

At least some state delegates at the event were of one mind with Stokes who said, “at the end of the day, endorsements don’t mean as much because the delegates are very sophisticated at vetting the candidates and who they are as individuals.”

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Matthew Wilkinson, a first-time state delegate from Draper, said, “I really don’t go by endorsements, I go by what people stand for and whether they’re in sync with what I believe.”

Taylorsville delegate Tonya Jensen, on the other hand, said she follows Gaetz closely, “and if he’s endorsing Trent Staggs that means a lot to me.”

What candidates are saying about a Trump endorsement

When asked whether they were seeking a Trump endorsement, most Senate candidates in Utah referenced their own endorsement of Trump.

  • “I proudly endorsed Donald Trump last summer,” Staggs told the Deseret News in a statement. “I would welcome his endorsement wholeheartedly as I campaign to make sure another Mitt Romney isn’t elected.”
  • Wilson said he endorsed Trump “because he’s the right choice to turn this country around and I’d be honored to have his support.” Wilson has centered his campaign around endorsements from local officials and making visits to every county in the state.
  • Curtis minimized the importance of endorsements in the race: “While John would welcome support from around the country, he’s primarily focused on earning the endorsement of Utah voters,” Curtis’ chief of staff, Corey Norman, said.
  • Hatch said “I always welcome those who support my campaign and would not be surprised if President Trump gave me his endorsement.” Hatch, whose father, Sen. Orrin Hatch, had a close relationship with Trump, said his work with the Federalist Society helped Trump nominate conservative Supreme Court justices.
  • Walton said “of course, we’d welcome an endorsement. As Ronald Reagan said, when somebody chooses to support me publicly, that means they’re supporting my political philosophy.”
  • Phippen said “Any candidate not seeking the Trump endorsement will not be a senator from Utah. … Trump needs a female senator who can help hold D.C. elites accountable.”
  • Entrepreneur Chandler Tanner said “While I am not actively seeking (Trump’s) endorsement” he supports “his efforts to promote conservative policies that make our nation strong.”
  • Accountant Josh Randall said “President Trump was a strong pro-religious liberty, pro-life president who was also strong on enforcing our immigration laws. … We would love to have his endorsement.”
  • Self-employed piano tuner Jeremy Friedbaum said “I would seek Trump’s endorsement, if I knew a way to get a message to him.”

Candidates Clark White and Brian Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment.

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