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Utah governor looks to rebound in primary debate after harsh reception at GOP convention

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is set to debate his primary challenger in a face-to-face duel Tuesday on the heals of defeat for the nomination at the state GOP convention, where he was loudly booed by delegates who argued the incumbent is too moderate to continue representing the state.

Despite failing to secure his party’s nod, Cox is considered the overwhelming favorite among Republican voters statewide. The convention often favors farther-right candidates and expectedly endorsed challenger Phil Lyman, a former county commissioner turned state legislator.

Cox already had qualified for the June 25 primary before the April convention by gathering signatures. He is now looking to deliver his message to voters uninterrupted after going off-script to address his harsh reception from Republican delegates.

The Republican primary winner will face Democratic nominee Brian King, a state representative, in November. That GOP candidate is heavily favored to win in a deeply red state that hasn’t had a Democrat in the governor’s office since 1985.

Tuesday marks the midpoint of a marathon week of Republican primary debates in the Beehive State. Candidates for the state’s open attorney general position are also to meet in debate earlier in the day.

Challengers for two of Utah’s four congressional seats faced off Monday, followed by the four Republicans battling for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. A crowded pool of candidates vying for the state’s only open U.S. House seat will debate on Wednesday.

Cox’s brand of socially conscious conservatism has led to occasional sparring matches with Republican legislative leaders since he took office in 2021 and has sometimes placed him at odds with the national party as it has shifted further right. As chairman of the National Governors Association, he has urged state and federal leaders to work across party lines to find common ground. He also has criticized former President Donald Trump and expressed his wish earlier this year for a different Republican nominee.

In non-election years, Cox vetoed several hardline conservative bills, including a transgender athlete ban that he said targeted a very small number of vulnerable kids who were already at high suicide risk. The Legislature swiftly overrode that veto.

Utah’s LGBTQ+ community has since criticized Cox for what some see as a drop-off in support now that he’s facing reelection.

This year, Cox approved a policy banning trans people from restrooms that align with their gender identity, and another prohibiting diversity training and inclusion programs on college campuses. He is backing a U.S. Senate candidate who has endorsed Trump’s reelection bid and, for the first time this year, he did not declare June as Pride Month, opting instead for what he called a “Month of Bridge Building.”

Lyman and other critics have accused Cox of supporting certain groups and causes only when it’s politically convenient. The governor has defended his record, insisting he’s tackled tough decisions with compassion for all. He has used the office to advocate for expanding mental health resources and has taken on social media giants that he argues harm the state’s youth.

His challenger is best known for organizing an illegal ATV ride in protest of a federal land decision. The 2014 protest ride came after federal officials closed a southeast Utah canyon to motorized vehicles to protect Native American cliff dwellings, artifacts and burial sites. Lyman argued the closure constituted overreach by the federal government.

A judge in 2015 sentenced him to 10 days in jail and three years of probation after a jury found him guilty of misdemeanor illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Trump later pardoned Lyman in December 2020, wiping the conviction from his record.

Lyman has mentioned his short sentence in many campaign speeches and has pledged to continue fighting against federal overreach if elected.

Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press

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