The good news for Donald Trump’s foes: Three lions of Utah Republican politics agree the insurgent billionaire is the wrong choice for 2016.
The bad news: They can’t agree on the right choice to stop him.
Mitt Romney, beloved by Utah’s heavily Mormon and conservative electorate, sought to steer his party toward Ted Cruz on Friday, pledging to vote for Cruz at Tuesday’s caucuses as part of a strategic voting strategy to deny Trump delegates.
But instead of falling in line behind Romney, one of his closest allies, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, threw his voice behind John Kasich instead. And Gary Herbert, Utah’s current governor, says his heart’s also with Kasich, but he can’t bring himself to offer an official endorsement when Utah’s hard-right voters more clearly line up with Cruz. So Herbert’s sitting this one out entirely.
Adding further confusion to the tangled messaging: a fourth favorite Utah son, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, has ruled out backing Kasich — despite what he described as lobbying by Kasich’s allies for his support. Though he’s offered no endorsement either, he’s been less hostile to Trump than his fellow Utah leaders, praising his call to focus more American dollars on domestic infrastructure and signaling support for Trump if he’s the party’s nominee.
Interviews with the state’s last three governors reveal a Utah-based discord that doubles a microcosm of the dispute wracking Republican insiders around the country. Huge swaths of Republican Party loyalists are working feverishly to deny Trump the GOP nomination — afraid he could redefine the party’s brand and doom it to electoral oblivion for a generation, if not destroy it altogether. Yet their attempts to bring down Trump, while united in principal, have been scattershot and at times at cross-purposes in practice.
“I don’t think Trump will do very well. I think that means the rest of the votes will be divided between Kasich and Cruz,” Leavitt said in a phone interview. Of Kasich, he added, “I think his manner, his persona and his positions will resonate with Utahans. Utahans like authentic candidates. They’re going to value aptitude more than attitude.”
Leavitt was careful to emphasize that his endorsement, which came before Romney indicated support for Cruz, was his alone — not a sign that Romney, too, was privately pro-Kasich. “My endorsement should be viewed as my endorsement,” he said. He added that he’s not quite as virulently anti-Trump as Romney has become in recent weeks, most prominently in a speech delivered in Utah urging Republicans to reject Trump.
“I think he was speaking his own thoughts,” said Leavitt, who was once considered a likely White House chief of staff to Romney had the 2012 GOP nominee won the presidency. “I think he’s made very clear why he did it. He’s not comfortable with Donald Trump. Those are his – he spoke his words. They were his words.”
Though Trump once polled competitively with Cruz and Marco Rubio in the state, Rubio’s departure from the race and Trump’s increasingly polarizing demeanor appear to have soured Utahans on his candidacy.
He raised eyebrows when he swooped into the state on Friday to make uncomfortable overtures to Mormon voters and hurl fresh insults at Romney, including by questioning his faith. But a new Y2 Analytics poll show the bottom has dropped out of Trump’s support in the state. Ted Cruz is straddling 50 percent support, and John Kasich has come on strong, capturing nearly 30 percent of the vote to Trump’s 11 percent.
If Cruz falls just short of 50 percent — thanks in part to Kasich’s last-minute surge — all three candidates will win a share of the state’s 40 delegates to the Republican national convention. For Kasich’s allies, it’s elementary: the goal is to accumulate as many delegates as possible before the convention — and that means competing in states he’s unlikely to win, including Utah. But in a race that’s become almost exclusively about the also-ran attempts to keep Trump from securing the nomination, ceding any delegates to him could prove fatal.
Leavitt’s successor as Utah governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., has offered warm words for Trump despite Trump’s public hostility toward him four years earlier. In a Friday tweet, even Huntsman seemed caught off-guard by the political split among Utah’s leaders.
“Something stinks in Salt Lake City,” Huntsman tweeted. “Best friends Mitt Romney and Mike Leavitt supporting different candidates in Utah. Keep an eye on this.”
In an email to POLITICO, Huntsman also denied any plans to back Kasich, a fellow governor. But he noted sharply that it wasn’t for lack of trying by Kasich’s campaign. “Notwithstanding lobbying from their camp, no plans to endorse Kasich,” he wrote.
But it’s Herbert, the state’s current governor, whose wrestling with the presidential nomination fight is most indicative of Utah Republicans’ own struggles. Herbert, who’s facing reelection this year, came an eyelash from endorsing Kasich in a phone conversation.
“Governor Kasich is a friend oh mine, and so my heart is with a friend,” he said. “I think John has a wonderful background and wealth of experience.”
But although his heart is with Kasich, his head may be with Cruz, who he planned to meet on Saturday. “Senator Cruz lines up a little bit more philosophically,” he said of Utah’s conservative reputation. “I certainly have significant positive feelings about Sen. Cruz and Gov. Kasich. I like them better than Donald Trump.
Herbert added that he has met with Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and came away with a positive impression of the younger Trump and his wife. “A down to earth couple, kind of a contrast to their father and father-in-law,” he said.
And he didn’t rule out backing Trump as the GOP nominee should he advance out of the primary. “As a Republican, I’m hoping for a Republican nominee that can beat the Democrat in November. I’m not ready to disown everybody or anybody.”
Utah senators are similarly divided. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who backed Jeb Bush and shifted to Marco Rubio later in the campaign, hasn’t signaled support for a candidate since Rubio dropped. Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett has backed Kasich, while Mike Lee, the man who unseated him in a 2010 GOP primary, supports Cruz.