‘Utah, like Florida, is where freedom works,’ Gov. Ron DeSantis tells Utah GOP during keynote speech

“The hat is here to stay,” outgoing Republican party chair Carson Jorgensen told delegates at GOP’s annual organizing convention.

Orem • 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.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Utah GOP state party chair Rob Axson talks with delegates at the Utah Republican Party 2023 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

Axson takes over a party barely in the black financially after years of financial troubles. According to the latest financial disclosures, there is less than $20,000 in their bank account.

In his benedictory address to delegates, Jorgensen said he learned some hard lessons during his tenure.

“Oftentimes, the currency of politics is dishonesty and disloyalty. And that was a hard pill for me to swallow. I would rather have somebody tell me the truth that I don’t want to hear than the lie that they think I want to hear. And that seems to be prevalent in politics everywhere,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen, who is rumored to be eyeing a run for governor next year against Cox, hinted that delegates had not heard the last of him.

“As someone on Twitter said recently, ‘I can’t wait until he’s no longer a part of Utah politics because I’m tired of looking at his dumb hat,’” Jorgensen recounted, referencing his trademark cowboy hat. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, random Twitter user, but the hat is here to stay.”

Current party Vice-Chair Jordan Hess also did not draw an opponent on Saturday, giving him the automatic win.

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.

In the two contested leadership contests, party secretary and treasurer, McKay Newell easily defeated Patrick Russo to become the next party treasurer.

The election for party secretary took two rounds before Stafford Palmieri defeated incumbent Olivia Williams, who goes by the name Olivia Dawn.

Earlier this year, Williams signed as a witness on a $5 million lien her mother, Teena Horlacher, placed on her own home in Syracuse. That document featured phrases and symbols commonly used by followers of the anti-government sovereign citizen ideology. Williams and Horlacher were both on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol when a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.

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.

A resolution on the new flag

After the attempt to undo the change to Utah’s flag fell far short of qualifying for the ballot, opponents turned their effort to Republican delegates on Saturday.

The resolution called for the GOP to display the traditional flag at all party events. Sponsor Brandon Beckham said moving to a new flag is an attack on the state’s history.

“This is a sentiment that we believe in our history, and it should stay, we support our flag. We didn’t want it to change. We also believe that our forebears should be honored by keeping it the original state flag of Utah,” Beckham said.

The proposal won an overwhelming majority of support from the 2,000 or so delegates in attendance. Backers hope that will give them leverage to force lawmakers to make changes next year or even ditch the new flag altogether.

Protesters decry DeSantis’ speech

Outside the UCCU Center, about 100 demonstrators protested Ron DeSantis’ presence at the convention, highlighting his stance against diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education and support for anti-transgender legislation.

Protestors faced some opposition from convention attendees, occasionally leading to tense disputes between protestors and a small group carrying Trump flags. At one moment, a woman shouted “pedophiles” at the demonstrators, many of whom were carrying pride flags.

Ermiya Fanaeian, an organizer for Armed Queers, said it was “no surprise” that the Utah GOP invited DeSantis, citing his push for banning gender-affirming care for minors which Utah also banned this year.

“[DeSantis] is a prime example of what cancel culture actually looks like,” she said. “He’s canceling books, he’s canceling ideas he doesn’t agree with and so we’re here standing in solidarity against his initiatives.”

Reporter Carlene Coombs contributed to this story.