Why Matt Gaetz attacked Rep. John Curtis during a Utah campaign stop

The Florida Republican congressman said Curtis, who is also running to replace Sen. Mitt Romney, has shown “weakness” in Congress.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs during a town hall at a campaign event at Riverton High School on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Several hundred Republican delegates and MAGA enthusiasts packed into Riverton High School on Thursday night to hear from Florida GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz, who was in town to endorse Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs’ U.S. Senate bid.

Staggs is one of nearly a dozen Republicans running for the party’s nomination to replace Sen. Mitt Romney, who is not seeking a second term in Washington. It’s clear Staggs and Gaetz think Utah Rep John Curtis — who early polls say is leading the race — is the front-runner, as both men took several rhetorical shots at him.

“John Curtis is Mitt Romney without good hair,” Gaetz said to laughter and applause.

Attacking Romney is usually a cheap applause line when the audience is Utah GOP delegates, who loudly booed him at the 2021 Utah Republican Party convention. It was a smart move, though, since Staggs must appeal to this group if he wants to advance to the Republican primary in June. To do that, he must secure at least 40% of the delegate vote at the April 27 party convention.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs during a campaign event at Riverton High School on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

In a brief interview with The Salt Lake Tribune after the event, Gaetz continued to take swings at Curtis, and said Staggs would be a welcome ally in Congress.

“I need Republicans who will actually fight. And what I’ve seen in John Curtis for the last several years in the House has been weakness — or a willingness to prioritize foreign interests abroad, special interests in the halls of Washington,” Gaetz said. “I think Trent Staggs will be a conservative fighter who will stand with the America First agenda.”

Former House Speaker Brad Wilson has already qualified for the primary election by gathering signatures, while entrepreneur Jason Walton is close to qualifying. A spokesperson for Curtis told The Tribune they submitted the needed 28,000 signatures to qualify earlier this month and are waiting for the state to verify names.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz endorses U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs during a campaign event at Riverton High School on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

The Florida Republican is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for having a sexual relationship with an underage girl. Last year, Gaetz was responsible for the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which he reportedly told associates was payback for McCarthy reviving the ethics probe after the Department of Justice declined to prosecute him, according to The Daily Beast.

Gaetz has a history of provocative and controversial behavior. In 2018, he invited Charles C. Johnson, a Holocaust denier who raised money for a neo-Nazi website, to be his guest at the State of the Union address. He’s also attended political rallies where members of the far-right Proud Boys militia were present.

Gaetz is the latest controversial figure from the conservative right to endorse Staggs. Earlier this month, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville campaigned in Utah for Staggs where he warned Republican delegates that a “satanic cult” was working to destroy America. Last year, Arizona GOP U.S. Senate candidate Kari Lake campaigned for Staggs in Utah.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees at a town hall with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs at Riverton High School on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Staggs said he welcomed Gaetz’s endorsement, as well as others from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, which he hopes will turn into support from GOP delegates.

“I’m not just somebody going out there trying to pick up any old endorsement,” Staggs said. “These are intentional. These are folks that I want to be able to say I’m going to emulate their type of fire and energy and ability to push back against the establishment.”

Reed Galen, a former Republican political strategist, says Staggs’s association with Gaetz shows that he is clearly trying to appeal to supporters of former President Donald Trump.

‘It’s an attempt to appeal to ultra-MAGA types. He’s hoping he can draw Trump into the race and get his endorsement in the crowded Republican field,” Galen said. “He’s clearly going for the ‘already a felon’ or ‘soon to be indicted’ vote.”

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