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United States

In the race to replace Sen. Romney, Utah weighs a Trump loyalist and a climate-focused congressman

OREM, Utah (AP) — As he led a crowd of picnicking families in the “YMCA” dance, Trent Staggs gleefully waved a “Utah for Trump” flag at a recent campaign rally — one more not-so-subtle reminder to voters that he is backed by the former president in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney.

That endorsement propelled Staggs, who was little known outside the Salt Lake City suburb he leads, to victory at the state’s Republican convention in April, where delegates lean far-right. But his credentials with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement may not be enough to win Tuesday’s primary, when Utah’s more muted GOP electorate gets its say.

The election will determine whether the state wants another moderate conservative like Romney — U.S. Rep. John Curtis is considered the front-runner in the race — or a farther-right candidate more willing to fall in line with Trump. The vote could have larger implications for how Utah fits in with the evolving dynamics of the national Republican Party, which the former president has largely reshaped in his own image.

“We have somebody in John Curtis who would just be a continuation of Mitt Romney,” Staggs said during the rally at a park just north of Provo, the city where Curtis once was mayor. “I don’t want another senator that has a disharmonious relationship with President Trump.”

Curtis is currently the longest-serving member of the House delegation for Utah, a rare Republican stronghold that has half-heartedly embraced Trump, whose brash style and comments about refugees and immigrants do not sit well with many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About half of the state’s 3.4 million residents belong to the faith known widely as the Mormon church.

Despite losing at the convention, Curtis qualified for the primary ballot using a signature-gathering method created years ago as a work-around for moderate candidates to ensure that their prospects were not doomed by the staunch conservatives who regularly attend conventions.

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said Curtis is “in a very good position.” The Republican primary winner is highly favored to win in November over Democratic nominee Caroline Gleich in a state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.

Even if Trump’s influence has grown in the state, his supporters could be split between Staggs and two other candidates who say they back Trump’s agenda, former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and businessman Jason Walton. Wilson was considered a strong candidate to win at convention, but his loss there to Staggs has relegated him to a long shot in the primary.

Curtis is looking to carve out his own brand of conservatism in the post-Romney era of Utah politics, with a focus on bringing Republicans to the table on issues involving climate change. Staggs claims Curtis is “a Democrat posing as a Republican.” But with a voting record that aligns almost perfectly with Trump’s policy positions, Curtis says he is more conservative than people realize.

The 64-year-old congressman takes the concept of a campaign trail more literally than most. He hosted a series of hikes with constituents to chat about the environment and to get to know them while out in nature.

As founder of the Conservative Climate Caucus on Capitol Hill, he has dedicated himself to teaching fellow Republicans about the consequences of climate change, pushing back against party leaders such as Trump who have falsely claimed it is a hoax and played down the effects of warming temperatures caused by fossil fuel emissions. The caucus takes a market-based approach to climate issues, countering Democratic policies with proposals that Curtis says aim to lower emissions without compromising American jobs and economic principles.

In a state where outdoor recreation is central to thousands of lives and where water access and air quality matter to many, Curtis sees the environment as a winning issue.

Still, Curtis has received broad support in past elections even from the parts of his district that house the state’s coal, oil and gas hubs. He has tried to strike a balance, prioritizing preservation of those industries by praising a plan to extend the operational lives of major coal powered plants in his district and urging lawmakers to not rule out fossil fuels as part of an affordable clean energy future. The United States, he argues, can achieve its emission reduction goals while still using some natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when combusted.

“I think the reason that they’re so supportive of me — and I still talk climate — is that I’m the first person that’s ever really articulated that they’re a part of the solution, not the problem,” Curtis said in an interview.

For snowboarding instructor Sara Moore, 34, who identifies as an independent but registered Republican to vote in the primaries, Curtis’ emphasis on climate change and the jobs tied to energy production strikes a “refreshing” balance.

“I’m a seasonal worker. We need a climate that can sustain snow,” said the Salt Lake City voter. “But I also recognize how our state’s economy and so many livelihoods are dependent on the oil and gas industries.”

Staggs, the 50-year-old mayor of Riverton, a suburb south of Salt Lake City, has promoted his endorsement by the Oil & Gas Workers Association, and he told The Associated Press he would prioritize energy dominance over reducing emissions. Staggs was the first to enter the race, even before Romney announced he was not seeking reelection.

Staggs supporter Sally Hemingway, 68, of Riverton, said he has been a caring, accessible and productive mayor. She admires that he was the first to challenge Romney.

“It may be a long shot — I think he knows it — but his campaign has always been about upsetting the status quo since he stepped up to challenge Mitt Romney,” she said. “And I think he’s done that.”

Jacob Mathews, 25, a student and construction worker, and his wife, Maya Mathews, 24, a substitute teacher, were undecided but said they will ultimately vote for the candidate who seems most approachable, supports working families like their own and values the U.S. Constitution. Whether a candidate is backed by Trump “doesn’t really matter to us,” the couple agreed.

They stopped by their community park in Orem to hear from Staggs and other convention picks who sang in celebration of Trump’s birthday. Both left wishing the candidates had spoken more about their policy goals and less about the former president.

“I want to know what you’re going to do for Utah,” Jacob Mathews said. “You, not anybody else.”

Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press