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Katie Mckellar, Utah News Dispatch

Although they are all vying to succeed him, outgoing Senator Mitt Romney was not mentioned once during Monday's hour-long debate between four Utah Republicans running against each other in the Utah primary.

The departure of Romney – the only Republican senator to vote twice for Trump's impeachment – presents Utah's Republicans with a challenge: Will they vote for a candidate who leaves room for moderates, or are they more interested in someone who fully sides with former President Donald Trump?

That's the question voters will answer on June 25. Among the four Republicans who participated in Monday's debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at the PBS Utah studios in Salt Lake City, the most stark differences emerged when the candidates were asked questions about Trump and whether they would accept the outcome of the 2024 election “on all counts.”

The question of whether they would accept the election this year was posed as a yes or no question by debate moderator Glen Mills. The former ABC4 anchor and chief political correspondent currently works as the director of communications and government relations for the Utah Department of Corrections. However, all four candidates provided specific details in their answers.

Your answers:

Businessman Jason Walton: “That's a trick question, but yes, of course I will take it and look forward to working with President Trump.”

Former House Speaker Brad Wilson: “No, if we see that there is demonstrable fraud and we know there is fraud, I will not accept the results. But I have confidence in our elections in the state of Utah, we have great election officials.” Rep. John Curtis: “I have to remind people that elections are a state matter, not a federal matter. The constitutional responsibility is to accept the results that the states send you, and yes, I will accept (them).” Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs: “This is really something we need to look at. I mean, we saw so much evidence of fraud in this last election. We saw the big tech companies get together and censor free speech around Hunter Biden's laptop.”

Across all states in the United States, there is no evidence to support Trump's persistent claims that there was widespread voter fraud that influenced the 2020 election.

Staggs repeated Republican claims that Twitter colluded with government officials and the media to suppress an article about the laptop's contents. Last year, three former Twitter executives testified that they mistakenly believed the article contained hacked material and reversed their decision to restrict its distribution within 24 hours, Reuters reported.

The debate addressed numerous other Republican talking points, including closing the country's southern border and fighting out-of-control federal spending and Washington-style policies packaged in massive omnibus legislation.

The differences between the candidates became particularly apparent in the case of Trump.

Curtis, who is leaving his post as representative of Utah's 3rd Congressional District to run for the U.S. Senate, sought to portray himself as a pragmatic and experienced congressman who listens to moderates but also knows how to get along with Trump if he is re-elected.

Staggs, however, has made it clear that he is fully behind Trump, portraying himself as a troublemaker who will “stand up to the establishment.” After Trump endorsed Staggs, he won the Utah Republican Party's national convention nomination with nearly 70% of the vote to Curtis' 30%, after several rounds of voting eliminated other candidates. However, Curtis, Wilson and Walton collected enough signatures to qualify for the primary.

Wilson also tried to portray himself as a Trump supporter during Monday's debate – but also as someone who will fight to bring the “Utah way” to Washington DC. He argued that his time leading the two-thirds Republican majority in the Utah House of Representatives had shown his ability to bring moderates and hard-line conservatives together.

Walton, who, according to his campaign website, owns 35 businesses in 19 states (including three in Utah), also compared himself to Trump as a businessman who could challenge the “career politicians” in Washington, cut federal spending and “get things done.”

Curtis is considered the frontrunner in the race (a recent Deseret News poll puts him at a sizable lead, even though a third of likely Republican voters in Utah are still undecided), and he has had to fend off most of the attacks, largely because of the large amount of donations his campaign is receiving from political action committees and special interests.

Curtis defended himself by arguing that he could not control who donated to his campaign.

Staggs' last-minute attack on Curtis

The debate was civilized throughout the hour, but the most heated exchange occurred in the last minute, when Staggs landed a final swipe at Curtis in his closing argument.

“You know, on March 4, 2020, Abbott Laboratories received a federal grant. On the same day, John Curtis bought shares of that company. That's the problem in Congress. At a time when someone should be taking care of their constituents, they end up only looking out for their own profit,” Staggs said, promising to ban “individual stock trading for members of Congress and their families.”

Staggs was the last candidate to make a closing argument just before the end of the show, but Curtis urged the host to give him the opportunity to say a word.

“You have to give me a chance to answer that,” Curtis said. “That's such a mean blow. You wait until I have no answer. You throw something out there that I can't answer. You accused me of a crime tonight. You better have very good evidence, and I challenge you to present that evidence, that I somehow committed a crime. And if that's how you operate in the Senate, the people of Utah would be very disappointed.”

That ended the show. After the debate, Curtis and Staggs did not shake hands, and Curtis could be heard saying “cheap shot” as he walked past Staggs.

When reporters asked him after the debate about his allegations against Curtis, Staggs said, “I did not accuse him of a crime.”

“That's the problem, that Congress allows stocks to be traded in this way,” Staggs said. Asked if he accused Curtis of insider trading, Staggs again replied, “I have not accused him of a crime.”

“I said he was trading stocks the same day the company received a subsidy,” Staggs said. “I think that's a problem. I think it's problematic that members of Congress are allowed to do something like that, and you see time and time again that many people make literally millions of dollars every year trading stocks.”

When asked whether or not he was accusing Curtis of insider trading, Staggs replied, “What I said is what I said. The same day a company received a grant, he traded stocks. And that's more important to me than just that one congressman.”

Curtis did not deny that he had bought the stocks. According to a 2020 report, he reported a transaction with Abbott Laboratories between $1,001 and $15,000. In response to questions from reporters, Curtis acknowledged that the issue could point to the need for reform in how members of Congress handle financial portfolios.

“I think I saw the problems firsthand. I was a businessman who came into Congress with resources and wealth, and I never really thought about what that meant,” Curtis said. “Most candidates don't see that when they run. I tried for a very long time to insulate myself from criticism … and none of it worked.”

Curtis said he tried to “separate himself” to avoid conflict.

However, Curtis also said that reforming financial restrictions on members of Congress is easier said than done.

“I think it's difficult to define exactly where that line is,” he said, adding that the issue could range from stocks to exchange-traded funds to interest rates. “That's why Congress hasn't passed a bill yet, even though it's been raised several times.”

Monday was the first of several days of debates for Utah's important primary elections. The previous Monday, Republican candidates faced off in debates for the state's 1st and 2nd congressional districts and for the congressional district.

On Tuesday night, Utah Governor Spencer Cox and his Republican challenger Phil Lyman will face off in a debate at 6 p.m., and on Wednesday night, five Republican candidates will face off in the race for Utah's 3rd Congressional District.

A full schedule of debates can be found on the Utah Debate Commission website.

Utah News Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. Utah News Dispatch maintains its editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact Editor McKenzie Romero at info@utahnewsdispatch.com. Follow Utah News Dispatch on Facebook and Þjórsárden.

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