4 Republicans are running for Utah's open Senate seat. Can any of them stand out? – KSL.com

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — With less than a month to go until the Republican primary election and just days until ballots are sent out, candidates for Utah's open U.S. Senate seat are running out of time to make their case to voters.
Although the race is a rare open contest — Sen. Mitt Romney was elected in 2018, and before that the last truly open Senate race in Utah was in 1992 — for a coveted seat in a body of 100 that will go a long way toward determining who represents the Beehive State in Washington for the next six years, available data suggests a significant number of registered Republicans have yet to firmly decide on one candidate.
But that doesn't mean the race is wide open, according to political scientists, who say there are two primary voter blocs candidates can appeal to in an effort to win the party's nomination: the traditional Republican voters and the Donald Trump-aligned voters. This year's race is already shaping up to be similar to previous statewide elections in Utah, where delegates at the Republican nominating convention often back a candidate who is closely aligned with the former president, only for Republican voters to favor a more traditional candidate.
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs handily won the delegate vote in late April thanks to a last-minute endorsement from the former Republican president, but now faces a tough primary race as Rep. John Curtis has benefited from being a well-known and relatively well-liked congressman.
"This is a pattern that we've seen a lot in Utah politics, with the convention picking these very conservative and sometimes not very well-known candidates, and then in a primary election things change a bit," Matthew Burbank, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, told KSL.com.
Former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson also brings years of legislative experience and political connections to the race, while businessman Jason Walton is the only true political outsider — an increasingly appealing status for some voters.

The frontrunner

Given Curtis' record in Congress and his name recognition, Burbank and James Curry, another political science professor at the University of Utah, believe Curtis to be leading the pack going into the primary.
"I think it's probably John Curtis' to lose," Curry said, with the caveat that there has been little polling, so far.
Curtis polled at 27% — more than twice the share of the second place candidate — in a poll conducted before the field of 12 was narrowed down to four at the convention, and two recent private polls obtained by KSL.com suggest Curtis is currently polling around 40% in the smaller field.
With such a short window between the April 27 nominating convention and the June 25 primary, Curtis is also benefiting from starting the race with higher relative name recognition compared to his rivals. Unlike the delegates, not all primary voters closely follow politics, so "having that name recognition is huge," Curry said.
"They're going to be more comfortable with the name of a person they're familiar with," he said. "There's not a lot of time for candidates who aren't as well known to get their name out there."

The MAGA candidate

Staggs, an entrepreneur and Riverton mayor since 2018, was the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring last year, when it was unclear if Romney would seek another term in office. His willingness to challenge Romney drew attention from national conservative media and he has turned that attention into a series of endorsements from high-profile Trump allies, culminating in the endorsement from Trump himself.
With Curtis drawing as much support as he is likely to, Staggs' approach of appealing to party elites is the most viable pathway to convince anti-Curtis voters to coalesce behind him, according to Curry.
"He's best positioned to cultivate them," he said, referring to that pool of voters.
It's unclear how much the Trump endorsement will help Staggs with primary voters, Burbank said, but the strategy has helped keep his name in headlines and likely boosted his name recognition with voters.
"While the Trump endorsement means he's probably going to secure a sizable chunk of the Republican voters," Burbank said, "I don't think it's anywhere near the majority or at least sizable plurality that he's going to need in order to win that primary."

The Utah statesman

Wilson boasts the backing of many top state officials, from Gov. Spencer Cox to sheriffs across the state. As a former state House speaker, he is well-connected within political circles, but struggled to translate those connections into success at the convention; he was eliminated with only 5.56% of the vote.
"I am surprised, I would have thought he would be more of a natural choice among the delegates," Burbank said. "(Wilson) is more of a Utah guy, he's better known, he's been a representative and a speaker of the House, and the kind of more practical politician."
Curry was equally surprised, but both said the Trump endorsement likely was a deciding factor. Wilson has spent a lot of his own money on the race and has a large campaign ground game, but he faces a narrow path to victory.
"I think he's in a really tough position, because it's hard to figure out what this third lane is," Curry said. "He's not the MAGA-endorsed candidate. He's also not the establishment candidate for this, so what are you? I think that's the problem."

The businessman

Although Walton is the "classic outsider" candidate, according to Curry, the Moxie Pest Control CEO is in a similarly difficult position because he has a lot of ground to make up in terms of notoriety. Wilson and Staggs also have credible cases to make as outsiders to Washington, possibly blunting Walton's appeal as the anti-establishment pick.
Trump, the most famous businessman-turned-politician in recent memory, benefited from being a popular reality television star before running for president, Burbank said, something other would-be outsiders have struggled to replicate.
"The outsider status is always appealing," he said, "but the reality is, if you're going to run successfully as an outsider, what you need to have is either an awful lot of resources or you need to be somebody who is well-known broadly outside of politics."
"(Walton) seems like the kind of candidate (voters) can support and feel good about, I think the problem he has is he just is not well-known enough to really make an impact on Republican voters," he added. "The difficulty in even doing that is you've got to have a message that's sufficiently different, that would make people think he's somebody I should be paying attention to."


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