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Florida’s DeSantis fires up crowd at Utah GOP state convention

By Harrison Epstein - Daily Herald | Apr 23, 2023
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to delegates during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023. DeSantis was the convention's keynote speaker.
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Weber County delegates sit before the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
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U.S. Rep. Blake Moore speaks to delegates during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
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Incoming Utah GOP Chair Rob Axson speaks to members of the media during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to delegates during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023. DeSantis was the convention's keynote speaker.
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Outgoing Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen speaks to delegates during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
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U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, center, waves to delegates during the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention held at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
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A convention attendee holding a sign reading "Remove Romney '24" talks with other attendees outside of the 2023 Utah Republican Party State Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

OREM -- Kickstarting the 2023 Utah Republican Party state convention Saturday, keynote speaker Ron DeSantis praised the work and politics of those in the room.

"Florida is the Utah of the southeast," said DeSantis, who serves as governor of the Sunshine State. "Florida has led, Utah has led in preserving what the founders of our country called the sacred fire of liberty."

The still-presumed 2024 presidential hopeful opened the convention, held at the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University, with a 40-minute speech walking through his personal resumé and previewing what voters can expect to hear as he continues traveling the country for a book tour. Copies of DeSantis' memoir "The Courage To Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival" were given away to convention attendees.

DeSantis moved through his own policy positions during the address, advocating for parental involvement in schools; firearm carry protections; eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion practices at universities; eliminating environmental, social and corporate governance; and prohibiting gender surgery and puberty blockers for minors.

Between his goals for the future, DeSantis walked the crowd through what he sees as his successes in office -- helping elect conservative school board members, instituting a "heartbeat bill" banning abortions after six weeks, receiving the ire of the United Nations for his decision to remove a Tampa-area prosecutor and stripping Walt Disney World of self-governing status.

DeSantis' fight with Disney originated when, according to the Tampa Bay Times, The Walt Disney Co. required on-site employees at the theme park to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. After Disney spoke out against the state's "Don't Say Gay" bill quashing discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, DeSantis threatened to revoke the park's special governing district, signed into law in April 2022. The fight has continued and will continue throughout Florida's legislative session.

He also railed against federal bureaucracies, calling it an "unaccountable, weaponized leviathan" that targets "people that the ruling class doesn't like." DeSantis was first elected governor in 2018 with 49.6% support, defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum by about 33,000 votes.

"I may have earned half the vote, but that entitled me to wield 100% of the executive power and I intended to use that authority to advance conservative policies," he said.

Going state to state, DeSantis has frequently spoken out against what he calls "woke" policies, saying, "Florida is where woke goes to die." According to outgoing Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen, DeSantis was not paid for what one delegate called a "presidential speech."

He has spent recent weeks courting endorsements from elected officials and prominent Republicans including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, former Nevada Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt -- who chaired former President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign in the state -- and a host of Utah officials.

On Nov. 14, 2022, 86 elected officials in the state released a statement urging DeSantis to run for president. One signee, Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner, was seated in the front row for DeSantis' speech.

"I enjoyed his speech and thought he made some great points about leadership, courage and taking a stand. I think he would be a great president. I would love to see him run," Powers Gardner said.

She is not the only one in Utah with a desire to see DeSantis run for president.

Convention attendees participated in an online presidential straw poll throughout the morning and afternoon. Poll takers were asked to rank their top five presidential candidate preferences. DeSantis received 54.6% of votes in the poll (1,197 people) compared to 29.9% for Trump (655), 5.3% for former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley (116) and 3.4% for former vice president Mike Pence (75). Another 149 votes were split between nine potential and declared candidates.

Several Utahns were listed in the "write-in" section by voters, including former governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. John Curtis, Gov. Spencer Cox and many more.

Most issues received uniform approval by GOP delegates in attendance; the only contentious issue was of repeat focus -- voting. During his speech, Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson was booed for saying the state's elections are secure and could be trusted. Delegate Bob McEntee, a Weber County Republican, made a motion for the party officer elections to be completed with paper ballots as opposed to digital voting using delegates' cellphones.

The argument was repeated from the crowd by former 3rd Congressional District candidate Jason Preston and a series of delegates questioning whether or not the digital voting service was secure.

Jorgensen repeated to each delegate questioning the system that it is safe and secure. In the end, Stafford Palmieri was elected to serve as the party secretary and McKay Newell as the treasurer. Rob Axson, the party's new chair, and Jordan Hess, vice chair, were elected by acclimation as the only candidates for the offices.

In meeting with reporters after the acclimation, Axson reiterated a worry Jorgensen shared with the crowd -- Utah Democrats garnered more support from voters age 18-35 than Republicans.

"We have to solve how we're gonna engage with young people. Our state is the youngest state per capita in the entire country, so if Republicans, or any political party for that matter, can't connect with the younger generation, we'll see the consequences of that in Utah sooner and more severely than anywhere else," Axson said.

As for supporting a candidate during the 2024 presidential campaign, Axson said he'll back "the Republican nominee" and does not anticipate endorsing anyone.

Only one constitutional amendment was presented during the convention, a move to amend how county parties allocate state delegates. A move to allow the proposition to be amended from the floor was swiftly rejected.

"We need to make it so that the counties have more local control over how they allocate state delegates to the precincts in their counties," said Peter Greathouse, a delegate from Millar County who helped write the amendment.

Opponents of the amendment argued that it would negatively impact "local control" at the county level. The change received unanimous support from the State Central Committee but failed overwhelmingly by delegates.

A resolution to support the Utah flag -- the old design, not the Beehive and mountain flag approved earlier this year -- was made by Utah County delegate Brandon Beckham. "It is a sentiment that we believe in our history, we support our flag, we didn't want it to change," Beckham said as supporters in stadium seats waved Utah flags. The resolution passed easily.

A nonbinding resolution seeking the repeal of Utah's signature-gathering process in which candidates can eschew party nominating conventions by garnering signatures from voters was also adopted.

In his final report as chair, Jorgensen thanked the party delegates for their work and commitment to the party, particularly over his two years in charge. Taking off the cowboy hat the Sanspete County resident is rarely seen without and switching it for another, Jorgensen alluded to running for elected office in the future.

"Nothing's off the table," Jorgensen told the Daily Herald.

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