4 Utah Republicans battling for Sen. Mitt Romney’s open seat exchange barbs in debate

From left to right, U.S. Rep. John Curtis, Trent Staggs, Jason Walton and Brad Wilson are on stage during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Though they’re all vying to replace him, retiring Sen. Mitt Romney was not mentioned once during an hour-long debate Monday between four Utah Republicans competing against each other in Utah’s primary election. 

The farewell of Romney — the only Republican senator to vote twice to impeach Trump — leaves a test for Republican Utahns: Will they choose a candidate who leaves room for moderates, or are they more interested in someone who wholeheartedly aligns himself with former President Donald Trump? 

Voters will answer that question on June 25. Among a field of four Republicans who appeared in Monday’s debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at PBS Utah’s studios in Salt Lake City, the starkest differences surfaced when candidates were posed questions around Trump and whether they would accept the results of the 2024 elections “across the board.” 

The question about whether they’d accept this year’s elections was posed as a yes or no question by the debate’s moderator, Glen Mills — former ABC4 anchor and chief political correspondent who is currently working as director of communications and government relations for the Utah Department of Corrections — but all four candidates qualified their responses. 

Their answers:

  • Businessman Jason Walton: “That’s a loaded question, but yeah of course, I’m going to accept it, and I look forward to serving with President Trump.”

  • Former House Speaker Brad Wilson: “No, not if we see there’s proven fraud and we know there’s fraud, I won’t accept the results. But I have confidence in our elections in the state of Utah, we’ve got great elections officers.” 

  • Rep. John Curtis: “I have to remind people elections are a state issue, not a federal issue. Constitutional responsibility is to accept the results the states send you, and yes I will accept (them).” 

  • Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs: “It really is something that we have to take a look at. I mean, we saw so many evidences of fraud in this last election. We saw Big Tech get together and censor free speech with respect to Hunter Biden’s laptop.” 

In states across the U.S., no evidence supports Trump’s continued claims of widespread voter fraud that influenced the 2020 election. 

 Trent Staggs looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) Trent Staggs looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Trent Staggs looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Staggs repeated Republican claims that Twitter cooperated with government officials and the news media to suppress a news article on 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 limit its circulation within 24 hours, Reuters reported.

The debate included many other Republican talking points, including closing the nation’s southern border, and fighting back against runaway federal spending and Washington, D.C. style politics wrapped up in massive omnibus bills. 

 U.S. Rep. John Curtis speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

U.S. Rep. John Curtis speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Candidates’ differences largely surfaced when it came to Trump.

Curtis, who is vacating his position representing Utah’s 3rd Congressional District to run for U.S. Senate, sought to frame himself as a pragmatic and experienced member of Congress who listens to moderates but also knows how to get along with Trump should he be elected again.

Staggs, however, has made it clear he is all in on Trump, styling himself as a disruptor who will “stand up to the establishment.” After Trump endorsed Staggs, he won the Utah Republican Party’s convention nomination with nearly 70% of the vote to Curtis’ 30% after several rounds of voting that eliminated other candidates. Curtis, Wilson and Walton, however, gathered enough signatures to qualify for the primary.

 Brad Wilson looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) Brad Wilson looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Brad Wilson looks on during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Wilson during Monday’s debate also sought to depict himself as a Trump supporter — but also someone who will fight to bring the “Utah way” to Washington, D.C., arguing his time leading the Utah House’s Republican supermajority showed he can bring moderate and hardline conservatives together.

Walton, who according to his campaign site owns 35 businesses in 19 states (including three in Utah), also compared himself to Trump as a businessman to challenge “career politicians” in D.C., tamp down on federal spending and “get things done.” 

 Jason Walton speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) Jason Walton speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Jason Walton speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Curtis, who is considered a front-runner in the race (a recent Deseret News poll shows he has a sizeable lead, though a third of likely Utah Republican voters are still undecided), fielded most of the attacks — mostly for big money flowing to his campaign from political action committees and special interests. 

Curtis fought back, arguing he can’t control who donates to his campaign. 

Staggs’ last-minute attack on Curtis

Throughout the hour, the debate stayed civil — though the most heated exchange occurred in the last minute of the debate when Staggs took one last shot at Curtis during his closing statement. 

“You know, on March 4, 2020, Abbott Laboratories was awarded a federal grant. On that same day, John Curtis purchased stock in that company. This is the problem in Congress. At a time when somebody should be looking out for their constituents, they end up looking out for their own profit,” Staggs said, pledging to ban “the trading of individual stocks for members of Congress and their families.” 

Staggs was the last candidate to give a closing argument right before the broadcast was scheduled to end, but Curtis urged the moderator to let him interject. 

 U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

“You have to let me respond to that,” Curtis said. “That is such a low shot. You wait until I had no response (time). You throw something out I can’t respond to. You’ve accused me of a felony here tonight. You better have very good evidence, and I’d like to challenge you to produce that evidence that somehow I’ve committed a felony. And if that’s how you’re going to work in the Senate, the people of Utah would be very disappointed.” 

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

After the debate when pressed by reporters about his accusation against Curtis, Staggs said, “I did not accuse him of a felony.” 

“This is the problem, that it’s allowed in Congress to go ahead and trade stocks in that way,” Staggs said. Pressed on whether he was accusing Curtis of insider trading, Staggs again said, “I was not accusing him of a felony.” 

“What I said is that on the same day that the company was … given a grant, that he traded stock on that same day,” Staggs said. “So I think that’s a problem. I think it’s problematic that members of Congress are allowed to do this, and you see time and time again that many people make quite literally millions of dollars every year on trading stock.” 

 U.S. Rep. John Curtis, rear, looks on after reacting to a statement made from Trent Staggs, left, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis, rear, looks on after reacting to a statement made from Trent Staggs, left, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

U.S. Rep. John Curtis, rear, looks on after reacting to a statement made from Trent Staggs, left, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. (Pool photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Again pressed on whether he was accusing Curtis of insider trading or not, Staggs said, “What I said is what I said. On the same day that a company was given a grant, he traded stock. And that to me is larger than just this one particular congressperson.” 

Curtis didn’t contest that he purchased the stock. According to a 2020 filing, he reported an Abbott Laboratories transaction between $1,001 and $15,000. In response to reporters’ questions, Curtis acknowledged the issue can highlight a need for reforming how members of Congress deal with financial portfolios. 

“I think I’ve seen firsthand the problems. I was a business person coming into Congress with resources and assets, and never really thought through what that means,” Curtis said. “Most candidates don’t see that when they run. I tried for a very long time to isolate myself from criticism … and none of those things have worked.” 

So Curtis said he’s tried to “divest” himself” to avoid conflicts. 

However, Curtis also said reforming Congress members’ financial restrictions is easier said than done. 

“I think the hard thing to do is to define exactly where that line is,” he said, adding the issue could range from stocks to exchange-traded funds to even interest rates. “This is why Congress actually has not successfully passed a law even though it’s come up a number of times.” 

Monday marked the first of several days of debates for Utah’s high-profile primary races. Earlier Monday, Republican candidates faced each other in debates for the state’s 1st and 2nd and congressional districts. 

Tuesday evening, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and his Republican challenger Phil Lyman will square off in a debate at 6 p.m., and Wednesday night will feature five GOP candidates competing in the contest for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. 

For a full schedule of debates, visit the Utah Debate Commission’s website.

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