DeSantis Takes His Presidential Campaign to Utah, A Heavily GOP State Where Trump Has Struggled

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 and that could be a beacon of strength for the Florida governor's stalled bid.

DeSantis is set to appear at the state Capitol with about a dozen supportive state lawmakers, meet with Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and attend a fundraiser.

His trip out West comes as he has been working to reset a campaign confronting financial pressures and a static position in the field trailing Trump. The former president has remained a front-runner despite his mounting legal problems, including an expected indictment in a Justice Department investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

"The more people see Governor DeSantis and hear his forward-thinking plan for our nation's comeback, the more inspired they become to vote for him for president," campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in a statement.

For DeSantis, the ability to show strength against Trump in a heavily Republican state like Utah could buoy his effort. In a place where the conservative and religious culture has at times given Trump a chilly reception, there are signs there's an opening for the Florida governor.

Among those set to appear with him on Friday is state Senate President Stuart Adams, who was one of the few Republicans to endorse Trump early in 2016 but who is now backing DeSantis.

"They're both great candidates. But I believe Gov. DeSantis deserves a shot. I wouldn't say anything bad about President Trump," Adams said in an interview this week.

Trump's history and style have long been jarring to Utah's dominant religious culture.

More than half the state's residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the faith's emphasis on decorum pervades its politics. Trump, a former reality television star known for his brazen personality and insulting comments about women and people of color, finished third in the state's 2016 Republican presidential caucuses, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Utah was also home to the resistance campaign of Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump former Republican who launched a long-shot independent bid for president in 2016.

Nevertheless, Trump won the state in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections.

Utah politicians have historically boasted of their penchant for striking compromises on polarizing issues ranging from immigration to discrimination against LGBTQ residents. But the Legislature, with its Republican supermajority, has lurched rightward in recent years, in line with many red states.

It has passed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender kids and directing school boards to convene "sensitive materials" committees to weigh whether to remove certain books from school libraries -- issues that have become a key feature of DeSantis' campaign message.

Adams, who said he was impressed with the way DeSantis steered his state during the pandemic, believes it will be a very close race between Trump and DeSantis in Utah.

"I believe as people get to know Gov. DeSantis, he'd have great support in Utah," he said. "Utah has great family values. Gov. DeSantis has great family values."

Asked if he thought Trump did not have great family values, Adams said, "No, I think he has a great family." He went on and said, "I think he loves his family."

Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, who helped put together Friday's event with DeSantis, said he didn't think the former president would win the state's GOP primary.

"I think it's his character when it comes to his affairs and his divorces and also when it comes to some of his rhetoric and some of his rude comments on Twitter and whatnot," Weiler said. He cited the Jan. 6 attack and multiple indictments as among the reasons Trump wouldn't win the support of independents, along with his record of already having lost one presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump has 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 children and once said those who didn't support Trump need to "ask for forgiveness."

Peay told the Deseret News in an interview earlier this year that he's no longer supporting Trump and doesn't feel he can win "because he's living 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 contests on Super Tuesday, which falls on March 5 next year. Super Tuesday, a critical proving point for campaigns, is the biggest day on the primary calendar because it offers up the largest number of delegates, which candidates must win state by state.

Unlike 2016, when voters had to wait in long lines and attend meetings to participate in Utah's caucuses, the state now holds a primary election. That is expected to draw a broader base of voters, though it's unclear what that means for the GOP field. The winner is expected to be awarded all 40 of Utah's delegates.

Cox, the recently minted head of the National Governors Association, will meet with DeSantis on Friday afternoon. He has said on numerous occasions that he would like to see a governor in the Oval Office. He and DeSantis co-headlined the state GOP convention in April.

His spokeswoman Jennifer Napier Pearce did not respond to a question about whether Cox is endorsing DeSantis or meeting with other candidates, but instead said in a statement: "As chairman of the National Governors Association, Gov. Cox has been vocal about supporting candidates who are Republican governors -- including Gov. DeSantis -- because governors are executives who get things done. He looks forward to welcoming Gov. DeSantis to Utah,"

Cox has notably not been supportive of Trump in the past.