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Utah governor defends record in primary debate after harsh reception at GOP convention

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox defended his record against a primary challenger in a debate Tuesday after the GOP incumbent was recently booed by Republican convention delegates who argued he is too moderate.

Despite failing to secure his party’s nod, Cox is considered the overwhelming favorite among Republican voters statewide. He used Tuesday’s televised debate to highlight his accomplishments uninterrupted after going off-script back in April to address his harsh reception from delegates.

The state GOP convention often favors farther-right candidates and expectedly endorsed challenger Phil Lyman, a former county commissioner turned state legislator who embraced false claims of election fraud following the 2020 presidential election. Cox already had qualified for the June 25 primary before the convention by gathering signatures.

The Republican primary winner will face Democratic nominee Brian King, a state representative, in November. The GOP candidate is heavily favored to win in a deeply red state that hasn’t had a Democrat in the governor’s office since 1985.

In a mostly cordial debate heavy on policy specifics, Lyman insinuated that Cox has been a submissive leader and pitched himself as the stronger alternative.

“I’m not against polite words, but there’s a point where we have to use aggressive rhetoric,” Lyman said. “Utah should have a governor who stands up for the people, who speaks frankly, who is understood.”

Cox argued he’s been assertive and successful without being brash.

“I’m so proud of the way we have been able to conduct ourselves, the way we treat people with dignity and respect while also passing some of the most important and conservative legislation anywhere in the country,” he said.

Cox’s brand of socially conscious conservatism has led to occasional sparring matches with Republican legislative leaders since he took office in 2021 and has sometimes placed him at odds with the national party as it has shifted further right.

As chair of the National Governors Association, he has urged state and federal leaders to work across party lines to find common ground. He has been critical of former President Donald Trump and expressed his desire earlier this year for a different Republican presidential nominee.

In non-election years, Cox vetoed several hardline conservative bills, including a transgender athlete ban that he said targeted a very small number of vulnerable kids who were already at high suicide risk. The Legislature swiftly overrode that veto.

Utah’s LGBTQ+ community has since criticized Cox for what some see as a drop-off in support now that he’s facing reelection.

For the first time, Cox did not declare June as Pride Month this year, opting instead for what he called a “Month of Bridge Building.” He approved a policy banning trans people from restrooms that align with their gender identity, and another prohibiting diversity training and inclusion programs on college campuses. He did not face any questions Tuesday about his support for those measures.

Lyman said during the debate that he’s “not a fan of mandating a lot of things on schools,” despite having voted for that campus diversity bill and a 2023 policy regulating discussion of race in public schools.

The state representative is best known for organizing an illegal ATV ride in protest of a federal land decision. His 2014 protest ride came after federal officials closed a southeast Utah canyon to motorized vehicles to protect Native American cliff dwellings, artifacts and burial sites. Lyman argued the closure constituted overreach by the federal government.

A judge in 2015 sentenced him to 10 days in jail and three years of probation after a jury found him guilty of misdemeanor illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Trump later pardoned Lyman in December 2020, wiping the conviction from his record.

Lyman has mentioned his short sentence in many past campaign speeches and pledged Tuesday to continue fighting against federal encroachment if elected. He touted plans to shift decision-making power to local leaders whenever possible.

“I’ve told the federal government to back off, to stand down, and the federal government does it,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got to be able to do.”

Tuesday marked the midpoint of a marathon week of Republican primary debates in the Beehive State. Three candidates for the open attorney general position — the state’s chief legal officer — debated earlier in the day. Utah’s current attorney general dropped his reelection bid late last year amid scrutiny of his friendship with a nonprofit founder who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women.

Challengers for two of Utah’s four congressional seats faced off Monday, followed by the four Republicans battling for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. Five Republicans vying for the state’s only open U.S. House seat are set to debate Wednesday.

By HANNAH SCHOENBAUM
Associated Press

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