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Utah gubernatorial primary: Gov. Cox accused of not being conservative enough


Utah's Republican governor wants a second term. He has a challenger in a Republican primary today. Spencer Cox has built a national profile as a conservative who wants to work with those who differ with him. He calls his national initiative Disagree Better. At a party convention last spring, the governor faced many activists who disagreed with him. Sean Higgins of our member station KUER reports.

SEAN HIGGINS: Almost 4,000 of Utah's most ardent conservatives packed into April's state GOP nominating convention in Salt Lake City. Cox got booed by some in attendance.


SPENCER COX: Maybe it's something much more simple. Maybe you just hate that I don't hate enough.

HIGGINS: Throughout his first term, Cox has been criticized by the right wing of his party. They say he's too moderate on issues like LGBTQ rights, the state's COVID-19 response, and state spending. Though Cox has signed conservative bills, like a ban on gender-affirming care for minors and eliminating DEI programs in schools and government agencies.


COX: I'm going to defend my record as I take it to everyone in the state, all 900,000 Utah Republicans in our primary who will vote.

HIGGINS: Cox lost the nominating convention vote by 35 points to Republican state representative Phil Lyman, but he still advanced to the primary through a signature-gathering campaign. Lyman has bucked authority throughout his political career. He still questions the validity of the 2020 presidential election and positions himself as a conservative truth teller. Here he is during a debate earlier this month.


PHIL LYMAN: In Utah, we've got some harsh realities that we need to face. There's a lot of collusion, lot of corruption that takes place in the policy-making of Utah.

HIGGINS: Even though Lyman handily won the state GOP nominating convention, Cox enjoys 62% support, according to a recent poll of registered Republicans. Brigham Young University political science professor Michael Barber says, this popularity among regular voters, but disdain among hardcore conservatives, is what makes Cox an outlier.

MICHAEL BARBER: When I see his behavior, I see him very carefully walking this line between being a very conservative Republican, but also doing things to visibly signal that he's, quote-unquote, "different" Republican.

HIGGINS: Cox vetoed a bill that banned transgender girls from participating in girls' sports in 2022. The supermajority Republican state legislature later overturned that veto. He also has not embraced the politics of former President Donald Trump, something Barber says speaks to the uniqueness of Utah Republican voters.

BARBER: We've got a lot of data suggesting that they're just not really into Donald Trump. And I think a lot of these things are kind of not explicit all the time, but implicit rejection of Trump and Trumpism.

HIGGINS: The winner of the gubernatorial primary will face Democratic state representative Brian King. During this year's elections, Utahns will also weigh in on who will replace outgoing U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, one of Trump's harshest Republican critics.

For NPR News in Salt Lake City, I'm Sean Higgins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sean Higgins