SALT LAKE CITY – If the pushback against Donald Trump becomes a Republican Party revolt, it could be said that it got its start in Utah.
Gov. Gary Herbert was the first elected official to pull his endorsement from Donald Trump as conservatives recoiled from a recording of Trump boasting of how his fame allowed him to impose himself on women. Other prominent Utah Republicans soon joined him. Sen. Mike Lee, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Mia Love, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman all called for Trump to abandon his campaign.
Utah is a deeply conservative state, with politics influenced by the Mormon Church based in Salt Lake City. But only 14 percent of the state’s Republicans voted for Trump during its caucuses in March, and Utah’s favorite political son, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, is a leading critic of this year’s nominee.
Tim Chambless, a political scientist at the University of Utah, recalled attending the caucuses, where attendees waved signs with red lines through the names of Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton rather than ones in favor of the candidate who ultimately won, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Rather than emphasizing a positive thing, they were emphasizing the negative,” Chambless said. “I saw confusion and negativity.”
That continues. Herbert did not say for whom he would vote when he announced he could no longer support Trump. Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, released a statement scolding Trump, but not pulling his support. Others hoped Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, could take over.
Boyd Matheson, a veteran Utah Republican strategist who runs the conservative Sutherland Institute, said Trump will probably still win the state. Utah allows straight party-line voting, allowing voters effectively to choose the GOP nominee without having to check his name.
Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson based his longshot campaign in Salt Lake City, hoping to capitalize on the state’s dislike for Trump. But Johnson’s socially liberal positions are an awkward fit with some in the deeply religious state.
“Governor Johnson is known here, he spends a lot of time here, both politically and personally, and he connects as a fellow westerner,” his spokesman, Joe Hunter, said Saturday. “Trust and character are important in Utah, and for Republican leaders here, Donald Trump has just put them in a really tough spot.”
Matheson said Evan McMullin, a Brigham Young University graduate, former CIA officer, investment banker and congressional aide running as a third-party conservative, might have an opening if he can articulate a positive alternative.
“The thing about Utah is it really does come down to what’s the principle and what’s the policy,” Matheson said.
Utah’s unique political culture, dominated by the Mormon Church, puts a premium on personal decency and openness to immigrants and refugees. Trump has struggled to appeal to Mormons throughout the West, a challenge for him in other states with large Mormon populations, such as Nevada and Arizona. On Saturday morning, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who is also Mormon, called on Trump to step aside for Pence.
But Matheson said Utah’s resistance to Trump goes beyond Mormon culture.
“This is the most upwardly mobile place in America, this is a place that takes care of refugees, this is a place with international reach,” he said. “America is great in Utah because of civil society and neighborhoods.”
Riccardi reported from Denver.