In politics, a few weeks can equal a lifetime. A month ago, when he was announced as the keynote speaker for the Utah Republican Party’s 2023 organizing convention, Ron DeSantis’ political star was rising. The Florida governor was considered a serious rival to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Bringing him to Utah shortly before the expected launch of his White House bid was a massive coup for Beehive Republicans.
Fast forward to Saturday. DeSantis is still expected to run for president next year, but his prospects are significantly dimmer. Polls show Trump has opened up a significant lead over DeSantis, and enthusiasm for DeSantis among donors has cooled dramatically.
Still, Republican delegates at the UCCU Center on the Utah Valley University campus Saturday were enthusiastic about DeSantis coming West.
“I’m interested to hear what he has to say,” said Davis County delegate Sherry Paul. “I’ve been following some of the good things he’s done in Florida.”
When he hit the stage on Saturday morning, DeSantis served up the political red meat Republican delegates were craving. During a roughly 45-minute speech, attendees leaped to their feet to applaud his mention of the political battles his administration has spearheaded in Florida.
“Utah is one of the best-governed states in the United States,” DeSantis said to a loud cheer from delegates. “Utah, like Florida, is where freedom works. Maybe Florida is the Utah of the southeast,” DeSantis added.
“I’m not like some of these Republicans who get into office and act like potted plants. We are going on offense. I’m not going to let the left define the terms of debate. I’m not going to let the media bully me,” DeSantis said.
[VIDEO: Watch Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ speech to Utah Republicans]
Attendees loudly cheered when DeSantis touted his state’s response to COVID, his fight against Disney and pushback against the perceived indoctrination of students in Florida schools. One of the biggest ovations was for what has become a mantra for DeSantis — railing against “wokeness.”
“It’s what I refer to as the ‘woke mind virus.’ We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said.
Cox’s reelection bid gets underway
Gov. Spencer Cox, who skipped last year’s state convention after delegates booed him in 2021, was again met with a smattering of boos when he hit the stage following DeSantis.
Last year, Cox was roasted by comedian John Oliver on his HBO program for asking Utahns to pray for moisture to end the severe drought gripping the state. That criticism seems to have stayed with Cox, who has been doing a victory lap of sorts, repeatedly crediting his call for prayer for the state’s wet winter.
“I asked you all to pray for water. We were mocked for that. There were two miracles that happened. The people of Utah conserved 10 billion gallons of water and the record-shattering snowfall we received. Thank you for praying. Thank you for showing your faith through your works,” Cox said.
Cox has already acknowledged he is seeking a second term in office in 2024. His campaign occupied the largest booth at the convention on Saturday, and campaign representatives handed out hotdogs and soda to delegates.
Meet the new GOP boss
The main event at Saturday’s convention, the election of a new party chair, will be an anticlimactic affair. Rob Axson is unopposed in the race to succeed Carson Jorgensen, who called it quits after a two-year term.
The GOP is the dominant political party in the state, holding every statewide office, the entire congressional delegation and supermajorities in the Utah House and Senate. There are nearly four registered Republicans for every Democrat.
Despite that partisan superiority, Axson says his work is cut out for him.
“Is the Republican Party strong in Utah? If you’re talking about the number of people who consider themselves Republicans, of course, it’s strong,” Axson says. “The apparatus, the structure, the funding, the technology, all of those elements that support people, that’s been very weak.”
Axson takes over a party barely in the black financially after years of financial troubles. According to the latest financial disclosures, there’s less than $20,000 in their bank account.
Bid for paper ballots for party leader elections
Lingering suspicions about election integrity led to a short-lived attempt to force the nearly 2,500 delegates on hand to use paper ballots instead of a cell phone app to elect party leadership.
“We’re not doing this because we’re troglodytes. We’re not afraid of technology,” delegate Bob McEntee said, informing attendees they had printed up 8,000 paper ballots for use by the convention.
Despite those best efforts, delegates overwhelmingly rejected the swap to paper.
Reyes takes a swipe at Romney
Attorney General Sean Reyes, who is rumored to be eyeing a run for U.S. Senate next year, appeared to take a shot at Sen. Mitt Romney, who did not attend Saturday’s convention.
Reyes recounted the plot of the movie “300,” which tells the story of an outnumbered group of Spartan warriors valiantly fighting against an overwhelming opponent. The attorney general compared state delegates to the heroes of the story for standing strong against efforts to turn Utah into California.
“The Spartans were betrayed, sold out by a traitor in their midst. He would not stand with them. He naively believed the enemy cared for him. He doomed his brothers in arms. Let us be wary of those who put their own ego and agenda before the interests of our party,” Reyes said.
Romney has repeatedly drawn the ire of Utah Republicans for taking stances contrary to party orthodoxy.
This story will be updated throughout the day during the Uta Republican Party convention.