Fringe politics take center stage at Republican U.S. Senate debate hosted by Utah Eagle Forum

From the “deep state” to the John Birch Society, Republican delegates heard about an array of conservative issues from U.S. Senate hopefuls on Wednesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Wilson answers a question during the GOP US Senate Debate at the Scera Center for the Arts in Orem, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Many of the questions during Wednesday morning’s Republican U.S. Senate debate in Orem reflected the alternate political reality inhabited by GOP base voters where esoteric topics that might seem odd to everyday Utahns are intensely important. It’s a universe where the “deep state” is perpetually on the verge of turning the country into a socialist society and politicians in Washington are all too willing to set fire to the Constitution to assist in that goal.

About 300 Republican delegates filed into the SCERA Center for the Arts for the event organized by the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. As the group made their way through the lobby, they were urged to take pamphlets promoting various far-right organizations and issues, including how an environmental program from the United Nations is, in reality, really a plot to enslave humanity. One particularly eye-catching pamphlet from the radical John Birch Society shows a public school on fire with the phrase “Get them out!” in capital letters on the front.

“If the public school were on fire, and your children and grandchildren were inside, what would you do?” the back of the pamphlet read. After warning of the dangers of critical race theory and how students are allegedly being sexualized, the reader is told, “Reforming the schools is no longer an option. We must get them out now!”

Against this backdrop, eight of the ten Republicans hoping to succeed Sen. Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate next year took the stage in Orem. The turnout was a testament to the influence wielded by the Utah Eagle Forum and its longtime leader, Gayle Ruzicka, in Republican-dominated Utah. It also shows the extent to which those fringe ideas have taken hold among the GOP base.

Hoping to woo delegates ahead of the April 27 Republican State Nominating Convention, the octet railed against government overreach and told delegates how much they revere and love the U.S. Constitution. Several hoped to impress the audience by name-dropping prominent conservative figures, including delegate favorites like Sen. Mike Lee, Donald Trump and Robert Bork.

“I was lucky enough after law school to become a law clerk to Robert Bork, probably one of the top constitutional scholars and one of the most conservative judges in the country. I worked for President [Ronald] Reagan and his justice department. I worked in the White House as associate White House Council under President [George H. W.] Bush,” Brent Hatch, the son of former U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brent Hatch answers a question during the GOP US Senate Debate at the Scera Center for the Arts in Orem, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Bork, who died in 2012, was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 by Reagan. Critics said Bork was too ideologically extreme to hold a seat on the high court, and the Senate rejected his nomination. Bork also played a prominent role in the “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Nixon administration. President Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox following his request for tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations. Then U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest, but Bork carried out Nixon’s request.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Wilson answers a question during the GOP US Senate Debate at the Scera Center for the Arts in Orem, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Former House Speaker Brad Wilson, who has been running to replace Romney for nearly a year, has tacked to the political right in recent months. He rattled off a list of accomplishments during his decade in the Utah Legislature to show his conservative bona fides.

“Whether its the biggest tax cuts in the history of the state, keeping government small and taxes low, or calling the legislature into a special session in June of 2020 to make DEI (diversity, equality, and inclusion) and CRT (critical race theory) illegal in terms of having those issues taught in our schools,” Wilson said.

While Wilson’s claim about CRT was sure to please delegates, it was a bit of a stretch.

Despite furious lobbying from legislative leaders, Gov. Spencer Cox refused to add a ban on teaching CRT to the agenda for a special session in 2021 (not 2020). In response, Republicans in the Utah House and Senate used an obscure provision in the Utah Constitution to pass a pair of non-binding resolutions ordering the Utah State Board of Education to ban the topic in Utah’s schools. A few months later, the school board acquiesced to the demand even though there was no evidence that the college-level theory was part of the curriculum.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeremy Friedbaum answers a question during the GOP US Senate Debate at the Scera Center for the Arts in Orem, Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Candidate Jeremy Friedbaum, who used Wednesday’s forum to hawk his company which sells gold money that can be used as currency in Utah, warned delegates against voting for candidates not sufficiently reverent of the Founding Fathers or the Constitution.

“Investigate each candidate to ask which one is most likely to resist the temptations of political offices. People are getting very rich and powerful,” Friedbaum told delegates. “You might want to see how close they are to defending the Constitution, whether it looks like they live a covenant life with the Constitution trying to be true to it.”

Friedbaum got a small cheer from delegates when he noted he asked the City of Provo to rename its airport after former First Lady Melania Trump.

Rep. John Curtis, who did not attend the debate because he was in Washington D.C., sent a video message instead. The audience booed Curtis when his face appeared on the screen and was shushed by Utah GOP Chair Rob Axson, who moderated the discussion. Curtis did get a smattering of applause when his message concluded.

Appealing to the delegates has gotten much less important, especially for Republicans, now that candidates can collect signatures to advance to the primary ballot. Wilson, Curtis and entrepreneur Jason Walton have already secured a spot in the primary through the signature path. Hatch reportedly submitted his signatures for review on Wednesday.

At most, there are two tickets to the primary up for grabs at the convention. Candidates must get at least 40% of the delegate vote for their campaigns to continue. If any candidate receives 60%, then they will be the only candidate delegates sent to the primary by delegates.

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