Republican 2024 hopeful DeSantis says he’s driven more by faith in God than politics

Visit to Utah comes as Florida governor tries to make inroads among religious voters, days after his speech at Christians United for Israel conference

Republican US presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis  speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, July 21, 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP)
Republican US presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, July 21, 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Ron DeSantis boasted Friday about his lengthy list of endorsements and support in Utah, telling a group of backers in the deeply religious state that he was driven by faith in God more than political ideology.

As he works to reset a campaign confronting financial pressures and a static position in the Republican primary field, the Florida governor called the race a “state by state” contest and tried to endear himself to political leaders by likening Utah’s growing economy and their conservative governing strategies to his own.

Speaking in front of a group of 17 state lawmakers in the Western state’s capital, DeSantis defended his campaign’s strategy and support in early states including Iowa and New Hampshire while pledging to focus on Super Tuesday contests like Utah’s.

The state’s March 5 primary could be a beacon of strength for the Florida governor’s stalled bid. His primary rival Donald Trump has performed comparatively worse than other Republicans in Utah, where the majority of the population are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The former president has remained a front-runner despite his mounting legal problems, including an expected indictment in a Justice Department investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But a show of strength in a heavily Republican state like Utah could buoy DeSantis’ effort.

“My fighting faith is faith in God,” DeSantis said. “Politics has a role, but I don’t think it should be the number one divide in our country.”

Former US president Donald Trump speaks during a rally, July 7, 2023, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

His remarks in Utah came as US Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech across the country in Jacksonville, admonishing a DeSantis-backed Black history curriculum approved by the Florida Board of Education this week.

He doubled down on earlier arguments that the new curriculum was needed to prevent liberal indoctrination and accused Harris of attempting “to demagogue” and politicize history.

He said he wasn’t involved in devising the Florida Board of Education’s standards but defended components instructing that enslaved people were taught skills that benefited them.

“They’re probably going to show is some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is: All of that is rooted in whatever is factual,” he said.

DeSantis’ trip out West comes as he and Trump renew their efforts to focus on Super Tuesday states, nailing down key endorsements, hiring staff, readying supporters to knock on doors and giving weekend speeches in states such as Tennessee to Alabama this month. In Utah, DeSantis met with Governor Spencer Cox and was scheduled to attend a fundraiser in the Salt Lake City suburbs on Friday evening.

DeSantis’ Friday appearance marked the second time he has trekked to Utah recently, coming two months after he spoke at the state Republican Party convention.

“The more people see Governor DeSantis and hear his forward-thinking plan for our nation’s comeback, the more inspired they become to vote for him for president,” campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in a statement.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has also spoken in Utah twice in the past year on a book promotional tour.

Among those who appeared with the Florida governor on Friday was state Senate President Stuart Adams, one of the few Republicans to endorse Trump early in 2016 but who is now backing DeSantis.

“They’re both great candidates. But I believe Gov. DeSantis deserves a shot. I wouldn’t say anything bad about President Trump,” Adams said in an interview this week.

DeSantis’ visit to Utah comes as he tries to make inroads among religious voters, days after his speech at the Christians United for Israel conference.

A woman raises her hand in the air as Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) Summit 2023, July 17, 2023, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In Utah, Trump’s history and style have long been jarring to the state’s culture and religion-infused politics. The state’s dominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasizes decorum in its politics. Trump, a former reality television star known for his brazen personality and insulting comments about women and people of color, finished third in the state’s 2016 Republican presidential caucuses, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Nevertheless, Trump won the state in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections.

Utah politicians have historically boasted of their penchant for striking compromises on polarizing issues ranging from immigration to discrimination against LGBTQ residents. But the Legislature, with its Republican supermajority, has lurched rightward in recent years, in line with many red states.

It has passed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender kids and directing school boards to convene “sensitive materials” committees to weigh whether to remove certain books from school libraries — issues that have become a key feature of DeSantis’ campaign message.

Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, who helped put together Friday’s event with DeSantis, said he didn’t think the former president would win the state’s GOP primary.

“I think it’s his character when it comes to his affairs and his divorces and also when it comes to some of his rhetoric and some of his rude comments on Twitter and whatnot,” Weiler said.

He cited the January 6 attack and multiple indictments as among the reasons Trump wouldn’t win the support of independents, along with his record of already having lost one presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.

Utah will be among more than a dozen states holding primary contests on Super Tuesday on March 5 next year. Super Tuesday, a critical proving point for campaigns, is the biggest day on the primary calendar because it offers up the largest number of delegates, which candidates must win state by state.

Unlike 2016, when voters had to wait in long lines and attend meetings to participate in Utah’s caucuses, the state now holds a primary election. That is expected to draw a broader base of voters, though it’s unclear what that means for the GOP field. The winner is expected to be awarded all 40 of Utah’s delegates.

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