Aiming to replace Romney, four Senate hopefuls cozy up to Mike Lee during Utah town halls

During stops at four town halls on Friday, Lee did not endorse any of the Republicans vying to replace Sen. Mitt Romney next year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Carolyn Phippen and Sen. Mike Lee host a joint town hall meeting in Lindon, on Friday, April 5, 2024.

Sen. Mike Lee crisscrossed Utah County on Friday, holding a series of quasi-job interviews for a quartet of the Republicans hoping to succeed Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate next year. Lee appeared at town halls for Trent Staggs, Caroline Phippen, Brad Wilson and Jason Walton, each hoping the senator’s presence would give their campaigns his stamp of approval.

One could reasonably argue the GOP delegates who showed up on Friday were there to see Lee, who is as close to a superstar among the delegate crowd as one could reasonably get. More than a few of them sported “I like Mike” t-shirts from his past campaigns.

If any of the candidates were hoping for an official endorsement from Lee, they were left disappointed. Lee said today was more of a chance for him to understand their positions and policies.

“I’m just doing events with them, hearing their presentations, watching what they say, and observing how they interact with people,” Lee said.

Delegate questions were a mishmash of issues ranging from Constitutional matters to foreign policy. Both Staggs and Phippen, a former Lee staffer, fiercely opposed any new spending to help Ukraine fight against Russia’s invasion.

“Why do American taxpayers continue, almost 80 years post-World War II, to continue to support much of the security apparatus for Europe?” Staggs asked in response to a question about increasing funding for Ukraine. “I think the first week of the (Donald) Trump presidency, we’re going to find a solution to this.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Carolyn Phippen and Sen. Mike Lee host a joint town hall meeting in Lindon, on Friday, April 5, 2024.

At a separate event, Phippen said she would instead focus on domestic defense than send arms to Ukraine.

“We are not in a position, as far as our weaponry, to be able to adequately defend our own nation if an actual threat were to occur in the near future. And I think we are at the most precarious place that I have seen in my entire life as a nation when it comes to threats from hostile foreign nations,” she told delegates. “And I think it’s absolute foolishness what we’re doing right now.”

One Ukranian-born delegate at the Phippen event, Sasha Pachev, challenged Lee and other Republicans’ reluctance to provide more military aid to Ukraine.

“How do you expect Ukrainians to negotiate for peace when, in their national anthem, they sing, ‘We will lay our soul and our body for our freedom.’ They will not negotiate with Russia,” Pachev said. “I know. I talk with people on the front line daily.”

“They have every right to take whatever position they want to take to defend their homeland. They don’t have the right to our money,” Lee replied.

Gayle Ruzicka, who heads up the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, attended Staggs’ and Phippen’s events. When it was her turn at the microphone, she teed up Lee to attack the United Nations and World Health Organization.

“I’m a big fan of both organizations,” Lee said sarcastically, noting he was pushing legislation to have the U.S. withdraw funding. “It’s not just that the bad outweighs the good. Instead, it’s getting harder and harder every day to see the good that comes out of the U.N. I don’t like it and I want it to be defunded.”

Staggs and Phippen hope Lee will boost their campaigns ahead of the April 27 Republican State Convention. They must get at least 40% of the delegate vote to advance to the June primary election.

Wilson has already qualified for the primary through the signature-gathering path. Walton is also pursuing signatures for a ticket to the primary, but, as of Friday, is still a few thousand short of the 28,000 needed to qualify.

There’s no obvious frontrunner with three weeks to go until the convention.

The results of a poll conducted by one of the GOP campaigns and shared with The Salt Lake Tribune show Staggs and Rep. John Curtis hoovering up the majority of support from delegates while Wilson, Phippen, Walton, and Brent Hatch combined are the first choice of less than half of delegates. Those numbers will likely shift as candidates are eliminated from contention at the convention.

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