Donald Trump’s endorsement can make or break a campaign. In Utah, it could turn the Republican race to replace Mitt Romney on its head.

Some of the state’s most plugged-in political insiders say it already has.

The GOP standard-bearer put his thumb on the scale for Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs just hours before the state nominating convention on April 27. Staggs proceeded to win the endorsement of the convention delegates in a landslide.

Now the Senate primary is narrowed to four candidates — an unprecedented number for a Senate race in Utah — featuring a current congressman, John Curtis; a former state House speaker, Brad Wilson; a businessman millionaire self-funder, Jason Walton; and Staggs, the mayor and MAGA favorite. Each is straining to clear a lane for themselves in a battle to score a slightly larger plurality of the vote, possibly boosted or busted by the former president’s blessing.

But the occasionally lukewarm attitude of Utah’s GOP primary electorate toward Trump, paired with the relatively high name ID and fundraising prowess of some of the candidates, could test the limits of Trump’s status as a Republican kingmaker in the fight to fill Romney’s seat.

Sen. Lee interviews; Trump chooses

From the beginning, Trump’s endorsement in the ruby-red Beehive State was viewed by many close observers as wishful thinking by Senate candidates looking for an edge over their opponents. Trump seemed unlikely to weigh in because the winner in Utah would almost certainly be a Republican willing to work with him. And Trump does not like to endorse someone who loses. Utah’s crowded field of viable candidates represented a real risk of making an embarrassing unforced error.

But for Sen. Mike Lee and his senior adviser, Dan Hauser, they knew an endorsement was only a matter of time.

“I talk to the president a lot. And he’s asked a number of questions about various races, including that one over many months,” Lee said of the U.S. Senate race in Utah. “I wasn’t shocked when the endorsement came out because he had talked to me about it.”

Hauser confirmed recent reporting by The Hill that Lee has an in-depth interview process for endorsements of prospective congressional candidates. The “formalized” job interviews focus on a candidate’s understanding of Washington, D.C., the separation of powers, federalism and constitutionalism, Hauser said.

“President Trump has come to rely heavily on Sen. Lee’s takeaways from those interviews,” Hauser told the Deseret News. “They speak regularly on many races throughout the country. … I knew President Trump had high visibility on this race — obviously, there were some very fantastic candidates in the race. And so no, I wasn’t surprised President Trump weighed in.”

There was little doubt that if an endorsement did come, it would be for Staggs, said Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“Trent Staggs was courting that endorsement for quite a long time. It was something he talked about. It was something he had contemplated for the delegates particularly,” Perry told the Deseret News.

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Trump’s endorsement

Since becoming the first candidate to officially announce his intentions to run against Romney in May 2023, Staggs did what he could to carve out an identity as the most Trump-aligned candidate, receiving the endorsement of Trump surrogates like former Republican presidential nominee Vivek Ramaswamy; former Trump administration official Kash Patel; Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.; Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake.

The fact that Trump passed over other better funded or better known candidates in favor of Staggs is especially significant considering the politician he’s trying to replace, Perry said.

“I think that since this is a seat that is being vacated by Sen. Romney, it’s also particularly poignant that former President Trump weighed in on a candidate here,” he said.

Trump’s endorsements, while sometimes unpredictable up until the last minute, often follow certain criteria, according to Lee, and Staggs checked all the boxes.

“He likes candidates who speak in the language of America first. He likes candidates who are sort of regarded as anti-establishment and who want some type of aggressive change in the way Washington works,” Lee said.

But shortly before Trump announced his decision on Truth Social, another candidate who had crafted a campaign carefully tailored to attract Trump’s attention thought the game-changing endorsement was his.

A political insider with ties to the Trump campaign and one of the most well-known campaign consultants in Utah both independently confirmed to the Deseret News that the day before the convention Walton was advised by individuals close to the Trump campaign that he would likely get the endorsement the next morning.

Walton, the CEO of Moxie Pest Control who has emphasized his Trump-aligned background as a business-savvy political outsider, was surprised and disappointed by what he saw as an inexplicable change in the president’s thinking.

“It was disappointing, of course, for Walton for that last minute switch to happen, but that was just Trump making his own choices,” the insider with connections to the Trump campaign said.

Walton wasn’t the only one surprised. Lee had campaigned “vigorously for Walton behind the scenes,” the source said. The Utah campaign consultant said people internal to Trump’s organization also told him they were surprised.

“If President Trump had met me, he would have supported me, and I would have welcomed it,” Walton told the Deseret News in a statement. “We’re both no-nonsense businessmen who get things done. Voters are tired of big-spending, do-nothing, career politicians. That’s why my campaign is gathering broad-based support.”

Why did Donald Trump endorse Staggs to replace Romney?

According to the source with connections to the Trump campaign, despite statements made by each major campaign, Trump’s endorsement was clearly “going to be between Walton and Staggs.”

The decisive factor between the two, the source said, wasn’t money — Walton loaned his campaign $2.5 million before the convention and raised a quarter million; Staggs raised less than $200,000 in the first quarter for a total of $894,403 since launching his campaign — it was loyalty.

“For Trump, obviously he wants Staggs to win, but this is also a reflection of how he values loyalty over everything,” the source said, adding Trump will pick a candidate “who is loyal over someone who’s just winnable.”

In the past few months, Staggs has visited Trump’s sprawling resort home in Palm Beach, Florida, Mar-A-Lago, spoke in front of Trump’s inner circle there and spent more than $12,700 in disbursements to Mar-A-Lago Club LC, according to his pre-convention FEC report.

Staggs told the Deseret News he was grateful for the endorsement and the momentum it brings to his candidacy.

“Our campaign is one of grassroots and making sure we’re not outworked. Having President Trump in our corner elevates that. He’s trusted, and he’s earned that trust because he keeps his promises. We need him in office, and we need a Senate willing to work with him and champion his America First agenda,” Staggs said in a statement.

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Is Trump’s endorsement dominant or negligible in the Utah Senate race?

Trump’s endorsement was key to Staggs’ decisive 70%-30% win among the state’s 4,000 party delegates, with Curtis coming in second, Perry said. Whether the endorsement has legs in the statewide Republican primary is yet to be seen.

Accompanying a Trump endorsement is often an influx of cash, Hauser said. “Usually what happens is the minute that you receive an endorsement Mayor Staggs will tap into the President-Trump-supportive donors,” Hauser said. “So I’m going to assume that this will be a fairly evenly raised and spent campaign for the three maybe four candidates.”

The source with connections to the Trump campaign said rumors of Staggs’ fundraising struggles are sour grapes from campaigns that wish they received Trump’s support. “Staggs is ramping up with a lot of in and out of state support. And Trump world, by the way, opened up a lot of their national fundraisers to help him raise money,” he said. “It’s not a long shot for Staggs; it’s really his race to lose.”

This speculation was seconded by a GOP operative who has worked closely with the Trump campaign on multiple occasions and also spoke to the Deseret News on the condition of anonymity. “For Trent, it brings a ton of momentum,” the source said. “Love it or hate it, this is Donald Trump’s party right now and the likely president of the United States just signaled to voters who his favorite is.”

Trump’s endorsement has been known to help candidates in Republican primaries, including in this year’s Ohio Senate race, where Trump-backed businessman Bernie Moreno beat state Sen. Matt Dolan in the GOP primary. But in the 2022 midterm elections, Trump’s picks who were not incumbents struggled to beat their Democratic opponents.

Perry said he isn’t so sure an endorsement from the controversial former president, and presumptive GOP nominee, will help Staggs with a broader and more moderate demographic of Republican voters in Utah.

“(The endorsement) was important for him, so that he could get on that primary ballot,” Perry said of Staggs, who was the only convention-only candidate to qualify for the ballot without gathering 28,000 certified signatures. “What he’ll need to try to do next is try to reach out to the rest of the Republicans because there is a finite number of Republicans who are going to be with him because Trump endorsed him, he’s going to need more than that if he’s going to win this election.”

Can Trump play kingmaker in Utah and win?

In fact, the Trump endorsement could backfire in a state that rejected him in the 2016 presidential primary, gave him just 45% in that year’s general election with independent Evan McMullin on the ballot, and appeared less enthusiastic about his reelection in 2024 than any other Republican-leaning state in the country on Super Tuesday.

“The person most delighted with the Trump endorsement for Staggs was John Curtis because it would split the oppositions’ support among multiple candidates,” the Utah campaign consultant said.

A close associate of the former president in Utah, who also spoke with the Deseret News on the condition of anonymity, said recent internal polling reflects a January Deseret News poll, showing Curtis with a sizable lead over the rest of the field. The Trump endorsement may have fed into Curtis’ lead by splitting “the conservative vote,” the Trump ally said, adding, “I don’t think it changes the race much at all.”

In a statement to the Deseret News, Curtis’ chief of staff, Corey Norman, said the campaign was not preoccupied with Trump’s endorsement.

“We remain focused on earning the endorsement of Utah voters and will continue to share with them John’s conservative agenda of stopping Biden’s spending, fixing Biden’s border mess, standing up to China, protecting Utah’s public land from D.C. takeover and ensuring we are energy independent and dominant.”

But even Curtis, with his wide lead in 2024 fundraising, receiving nearly $1.4 million prior to the convention and over $3 million this election cycle, can take nothing for granted with four candidates on the primary ballot and no run-off mechanism for elections in the state.

“This is the first time that we have had four candidates on the primary ballot for the United States Senate (in Utah),” Perry said. “Which means that we could see someone winning that primary with a fairly small percentage of the vote.”

Being just one of four appealing options also leaves Wilson in a challenging position, despite having the most money in the race overall, at $4.8 million including $2.8 million in self-funded loans. Wilson entered the race confident that his track record as House speaker in the state Legislature would give him a leg up over his competition.

“Brad Wilson continues to lead the field in fundraising and in-state endorsements because Utahns know he’ll fight to make Washington work a lot more like we do here in Utah,” Wilson spokesperson Gabby Wiggins said in a statement to the Deseret News. “Brad looks forward to working with Donald Trump to turn the country around when he’s elected to the U.S. Senate in November.”

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Lee: Senate race is still ‘fairly hard to predict’

Lee said Utah’s problem of plurality in high stakes elections is the product of a decade-old law that created a signature gathering workaround to the state’s unique caucus and convention system. Prior to the law being passed in 2014, state party delegates, who represent local party precincts, would narrow the field down to one or two candidates in their state convention, ensuring the winner came away with a majority even if a primary was needed.

“The fact that we’ve got four candidates on this ballot does make it fairly hard to predict,” Lee said. “That said, I think a Donald Trump endorsement certainly has an impact. It doesn’t in this race, or in any other, guarantee a particular outcome, but I do think it will have a significant impact.”

Hauser said if Staggs is victorious it would indicate that people claiming the caucus system had become irrelevant, or calling for its demise, were premature. But at this point the outcome of the election is anyone’s guess, he said.

“According to most people that poll well, this United States Senate race is a wide open primary,” Hauser said. “I would say that this race is fully up for grabs still.”

Each candidate offers something distinct to Utah Republicans, Hauser said, making it a “test for President Trump’s endorsement within Utah.”

For Perry, it’s not Staggs’ race to lose, or Curtis’, Wilson’s or Walton’s. It’s Trump’s.

“There is a group of Republicans that are very much in the Trump camp that will remain very much in the Staggs camp. We’ll see very soon just how big of a percentage that is when it comes to Republicans generally,” Perry said. “Utahns tend to be more centered than that.”