SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Ron DeSantis is taking his presidential campaign to Utah on Friday, prioritizing a state where rival Donald Trump has struggled in the past that could be a beacon for the Florida governor’s stalled bid.
DeSantis is scheduled to appear at the state Capitol with a dozen state lawmakers, meet with Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and attend a fundraiser.
His trip out West comes as he worked to reset a campaign facing financial pressures and a static position on the ground behind Trump. The former president has remained a frontrunner despite his growing legal troubles, including an expected impeachment in a Justice Department investigation into his efforts to void the 2020 election.
“The more people see Governor DeSantis and hear about his forward-thinking plan for our nation’s return, the more inspired they become to vote for him for president,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement.
For DeSantis, the ability to show force against Trump in a heavily Republican state like Utah could bolster his efforts. In a place where conservative and religious culture has at times given a cold reception to Trump, there are signs that there is an opening for the governor of Florida.
Among those scheduled to appear with him on Friday is State Senate Speaker Stuart Adams, who was one of the few Republicans to endorse Trump in early 2016 but is now backing DeSantis.
“They are both excellent candidates. But I believe Governor DeSantis deserves a chance. I wouldn’t say anything bad about President Trump,” Adams said in an interview this week.
Trump’s story and style have long shocked Utah’s mainstream religious culture.
More than half of the state’s residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the faith’s emphasis on decorum permeates its politics. Trump, a former reality TV star known for his cheeky personality and insulting comments about women and people of color, finished third in the state’s Republican presidential caucuses in 2016, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Utah has also hosted the resistance campaign of Evan McMullin, a former anti-Trump Republican who launched a long independent bid for president in 2016.
Nonetheless, Trump won the state in the 2016 and 2020 general elections.
Utah politicians have always bragged about their penchant for striking compromises on polarizing issues ranging from immigration to discrimination against LGBTQ residents. But the legislature, with its Republican supermajority, has swung to the right in recent years, in line with many red states.
He passed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender children and ordering school boards to convene “sensitive materials” committees to determine whether to remove certain books from school libraries — issues that have become a key part of DeSantis’ campaign message.
Adams, who said he was impressed with the way DeSantis has run his state during the pandemic, thinks it will be a very close race between Trump and DeSantis in Utah.
“I believe when people get to know Governor DeSantis he would have great support in Utah,” he said. “Utah has great family values. Governor DeSantis has great family values.
Asked if he thinks Trump doesn’t have big family values, Adams replied, “No, I think he has a big family.” He went on to say, “I think he loves his family.”
Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who helped organize Friday’s event with DeSantis, said he doesn’t think the former president will win the state’s GOP primary.
“I think that’s his character when it comes to his affairs and his divorces and also when it comes to his rhetoric and some of his rude comments on Twitter and so on,” Weiler said. He cited the Jan. 6 attack and multiple indictments among reasons Trump would not win support from independents, as well as his record of ever losing a presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump even lost one of his biggest supporters in Utah: Don Peay, who helped lead Trump’s 2016 effort in Utah, went hunting with Trump’s kids and once said those who didn’t support Trump should “apologize.”
Peay told the Deseret News in an interview earlier this year that he no longer supports Trump and doesn’t think he can win “because he lives in the past.” He did not respond to messages seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Utah will be among more than a dozen states holding primary competitions on Super Tuesday, which falls on March 5 next year. Super Tuesday, a critical point for campaigns, is the biggest day on the main calendar because it offers the highest number of delegates, which candidates must win state by state.
Unlike 2016, when voters had to line up and attend meetings to participate in Utah’s caucuses, the state now holds primary elections. That should appeal to a broader base of voters, though it’s unclear what that means for the GOP field. The winner is expected to receive all 40 delegates from Utah.
Cox, the newly created head of the National Governors Association, will meet with DeSantis on Friday afternoon. He has said many times that he would like to see a Governor in the Oval Office. He and DeSantis co-hosted the state’s GOP convention in April.
His spokeswoman Jennifer Napier Pearce did not respond to a question about whether Cox endorsed DeSantis or was meeting with other candidates, but instead said in a statement, “As president of the National Governors Association, Governor Cox has expressed his support for candidates who are Republican governors — including Governor DeSantis — because governors are executives who get things done. He looks forward to welcoming Governor DeSantis to Utah,”
Cox notably has not supported Trump in the past.
Price reported from New York.