The heavily Republican state of Utah will likely decide its next U.S. senator on June 25 in the hotly contested primary election to replace Sen. Mitt Romney.

The Beehive State’s first competitive Republican race for an open Senate seat in three decades has flooded media markets with ads, swamped voters with national talking points and even attracted the endorsement of the party’s 2024 presidential nominee.

Polling and fundraising metrics show 3rd District congressman John Curtis in the lead. But it remains unclear how a near-plurality of undecided voters will tilt the four-way competition to the Senate hopefuls, which also include former state House Speaker Brad Wilson, Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, who won the state GOP nominating convention among party delegates.

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Campaign numbers and survey results are quantitative measures of what is reaching, and resonating with, Utahns. But what are undecided voters saying about what matters most to them in this election?

The Deseret News moderated a group discussion with seven self-identified Republican voters who remained mostly undecided and who said they plan to vote in the 2024 Senate primary. Participants joining over video call represented different parts of the state, different work backgrounds and different flavors of conservatism.

This qualitative look revealed something that unites politically engaged but persuadable voters. Focus group members said they were hungry for Utah representation that stands firm on Republican Party principles and stands out on consensus building.

The participants also found general agreement on the impact of Staggs’ endorsement from former President Donald Trump. The stamp of approval changed no one’s mind in favor of the candidate. Instead, it had a negative or neutral impact on this group in influencing who they will vote for.

What kind of senator do Utah Republicans want?

Nothing matters more in navigating the gravity, and garbage, of national politics than good character, according to Daniel “DJ” Kimball.

As a teacher at West Desert High School — one of Utah’s smallest schools, located in unincorporated Partoun, Juab County — Kimball has taught enough about the Constitution to know the nation’s founding required “huge compromise” — and the character to back it up. “And I think that’s something that needs to be happening in our government today.”

Kimball, who teaches social studies when not teaching science, Portuguese or P.E., said his “No. 1″ qualification for Utah’s next senator is that they be a “moral individual” who is willing to “choose what they feel is right” even if that means losing points in the “political game.”

DJ Kimball poses for a portrait at Fort Utah Park in Provo on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

“That’s one thing I liked about Mitt Romney,” Kimball said.

“I think our political climate now is really good at villainizing the opposition,” he continued. “I’d like to have a candidate in there that treats especially those who disagree with them as people.”

Barbara McCaskey, a retired resident of Daybreak and former Delta Airlines employee, also sees Romney as an example — but of what she doesn’t want.

“I’m just happy as a clam to see Mitt Romney leave,” McCaskey said. “I just don’t feel like he represented the people of the state of Utah.” While undecided in Utah’s Senate race, McCaskey said she “could go for another Mike Lee,” someone she says abides by the party platform.

The view was shared by Herriman City Council member Sherrie Ohrn who has “pretty much retired” from her wedding decorating and horse riding businesses to “watch a lot of grandkids.” Ohrn said she is tired of politicians who run as Republicans but embody the label in name only.

“I would like the next Republican that gets elected to actually follow what the charter is for the Republican Party,” Ohrn said. “If you don’t want to stand for that, and don’t want to believe in that, and you want to tweak it here and there, then don’t run as a Republican.”

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But campaign promises can be an unreliable means of judging electoral effectiveness, said David Terry, who has worked in all 29 of Utah’s counties helping energy and mineral extraction businesses obtain land titles. After some research, Terry concluded the four GOP Senate candidates’ platforms were mostly indistinguishable from one another.

“I think in a senator I try to look at qualities of the person and their ability to collaborate with other people,” Terry said. But, he clarified, this doesn’t mean he wants a representative who will “go off and, as a lone person, cooperate with the Democrats.”

What Utah needs is an “elder statesman,” according to Terry, someone like former Utah Sen. Jake Garn, whose 20 years of Senate service was noted by strongly held conservative views paired with an equally strong commitment to civility.

“When we think about those older senators, or our historic senators and congressmen that made a difference, I don’t think of specific issues, but more that they seem to be kind of in the right place at the right time and on the right positions, and able to build consensus with other senators to get things done that way,” Terry said.

What issues do Republicans want Utah’s next senator to solve?

Beyond wanting a principled team player, focus group participants wanted a senator who would push for solutions on the biggest concerns in the nation, which they shared: the economy and immigration.

John Decker is at the frontlines of the country’s inflation havoc. An estimator for Layton Construction living in Kaysville, Decker said an overspending and overreaching federal bureaucracy is hurting Utahns directly.

“This economy, and these interest rates, are absolutely killing private development of construction projects,” Decker said. “I want to have a senator that claws back — just like Mike Lee wants to do — all of the power of the Senate. Way too often, the Senate and the House have punted their responsibilities to the executive branch, and it needs to end as far as I’m concerned.”

Jack Fried is photographed at his home in Cottonwood Heights on Thursday, June 6, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Stagflation, caused in part by overregulation, is felt just as painfully in health care. That’s according to Jacob Fried, a retired respiratory therapist who previously managed multiple departments in various hospitals and continues to lobby state leaders on behalf of his industry.

Fried noted that the Republican Party has failed to update its platform in the Trump era, hindering its ability to develop a more “realistic” approach to making government programs more sustainable while simultaneously supporting the country’s most vulnerable.

“There was one day I had three patients in the intensive care unit because they couldn’t afford insulin. I’ve treated people in the emergency department because they couldn’t afford their inhalers,” Fried recounted. “So that is an issue.”

Fried — “not a fan of Donald Trump” — waxed nostalgic for Trump’s Remain in Mexico program while criticizing the president, and his allies, for torpedoing a bipartisan border deal earlier this year.

Quelling the country’s migrant crossing chaos was the top issue for multiple focus group participants.

“Joe Biden opened the floodgates and has let millions of people who don’t belong here in. They’re planning on trying to get them to vote, which I think is wrong — you have to be a citizen to vote,” McCaskey said. “But it’s one of my top concerns in this election.”

Noncitizens voting in U.S. federal elections is extremely rare and punishable by up to a year in prison, the Deseret News previously reported.

Ohrn’s concern over the country’s porous border stems from personal experience. Serving on the city council, Ohrn has seen how an influx of migrants permitted to enter the U.S. by lenient Biden administration policies have overwhelmed school administrators, hurt housing availability and worsened “our already very, very broken economy.”

“I can’t tell you the impact it’s having on our own local community, that people are just super unaware of,” Ohrn said. “There is a legal way to immigrate to this country. And whether it needs fixed or not is not the debate. The debate is that there’s a legal process, and if you’re not following the legal process, then you shouldn’t be here.”

Nancy Hopkin, a former music teacher living in Lehi, joined Kimball in hoping Utah’s next senator would do more to protect schools from gun violence and provide greater mental health support for students and young adults. But Hopkin’s expectations are low.

“It sounds silly, but I’d like to find somebody that can put two words together and sound intelligent,” she said. Hopkin’s additional qualifying attributes including “God fearing, family oriented and able to negotiate.”

Deseret News reporter Brigham Tomco, top row center, interviews a focus group for his story about undecided Republican voters. Utah voters are split between four GOP Senate candidates in the June 25 primary election. | Zoom.com

What do undecided GOP voters know about Utah’s Senate candidates?

Hopkin said she needed to “do more homework” before sharing a preference for one of Utah’s four Republican Senate candidates. McCaskey also withheld judgement, saying she had seen Wilson ads “all over town” but didn’t know much about the other candidates.

The other focus group participants had narrowed down their lists based off a number of factors.

Watching Staggs fight for southwest Salt Lake valley has convinced Ohrn that the mayor of Riverton is a capable and determined leader. “I would classify him somewhat as a bulldog,” Ohrn said. “If there’s an issue and he says he’ll work it, he’ll work it.”

Staggs put in the work to create a true ground campaign as the first candidate to enter the race, Ohrn said, and it is unfair to say he’s riding the “coattails” of Trump’s endorsement. Orhn said she took issue with Wilson’s campaign messaging that takes credit for the state’s legislative accomplishments.

Any of the four candidates “will be good for Utah,” Terry believes, after reading about each of the candidates. But he said he is leaning toward Staggs and Wilson because their experience in legislative leadership, particularly Wilson’s, gives them insight into local issues and the realities of lawmaking.

“A guy like Brad Wilson understands forming those coalitions and finding the bipartisan support as well as intra-party support to get legislation passed,” Terry said.

Fried, a self-described “moderate,” finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, opposing Staggs because he “has endorsements from people that I think very poorly of” and counting out Wilson because “many of the laws he championed, I opposed.”

In his interactions with Curtis, Fried said he found him “open to listen.” Fried called Curtis a moderate who has been “protecting his right flank” during the primary and said he was leaning toward voting for the 3rd District representative. But Fried said he’s interested in hearing more about Walton’s “business approach.”

Kimball also said he was leaning toward Curtis. He remembers living in Provo when Curtis first ran for and served as mayor of the city.

“I thought he did a really good job as mayor,” Kimball said. “As a representative he has been very active in getting things done.”

Jack Fried gardens at his home in Cottonwood Heights on Thursday, June 6, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Like Fried, Kimball described himself as “not a huge fan of Trump” and said “when a political candidate comes and says, ‘Hey, I’m endorsed by Trump,’ my first reaction is to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to vote for somebody else then.’ But that’s just me.”

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Decker called Walton “the dark horse” candidate in the race and said he had really only crossed off one of Walton’s opponents from consideration. Decker said if Staggs had hoped to “be riding the coattails of Donald Trump” he should be worried “because I don’t see much from him, especially with that prime endorsement.”

Trump’s endorsement is a positive indicator for Ohrn. While Trump, like many other presidents, has done things that offend her morals, Ohrn said, that doesn’t overshadow the fact that her bank account and the border looked “a whole lot better” under Trump than they do now.

“I definitely support President Trump. But it doesn’t make or break the Senate candidates for me,” Ohrn said. It is a shame that people would base their votes on endorsements or campaign advertising, Ohrn said, instead of on the substance of a candidate’s character or views.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s the way we vote for people in this country. If you get a cool flyer in the mail, maybe that’s who you’re voting for. They have a really cool sign up, that’s who you’re voting for. It never goes deeper than that,” Ohrn said, “which I think is super unfortunate.”

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