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Utah Republicans are sour on Trump, and Libertarians sense opportunity

Utah Republicans are sour on Trump, and Libertarians sense opportunity
Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson leaves the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

At a recent weekend farmers market in Provo — the heart of a reliably Republican county in a reliably Republican state — little love was to be found for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"I can't vote for Donald Trump, not in good conscience," said Michelle Tukuafu, a 47 year-old registered Republican from nearby Spanish Fork, with a distaste representative of views held by many fellow shoppers.

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As for Democratic contender Hillary Clinton?

"Oh my gosh, heck no," she said.

In the chorus of disappointment ringing from Utah voters, Andy McCullough, chairman of the state's Libertarian party, hears opportunity.

"The timing is right," said McCullough, sitting in his Salt Lake City law office above Dr. John's Lingerie Store – he's carved a niche representing the adult entertainment industry.

"I think it all comes together this year, and I think we make some tremendous waves."

A party led by Utah's self-described "porn lawyer" may not seem the natural home for this state's predominantly Mormon, typically socially conservative voters. But this is no normal year.

While Trump may not always be conservative, we know Hillary will always be liberal.


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Utah is one of the handful of states where Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson plans to focus his energies, hoping to capitalize on the revulsion against Trump felt by many of those conservative Mormons.

Winning the state, or even getting a significant share of the vote, will hardly be easy for the Libertarians. But the very fact that they're being seriously discussed  — Mitt Romney, the Republican's 2012 nominee, who remains a highly popular figure here, recently said he would not rule out voting for the party — has Libertarian activists dreaming big.

The party faces some serious hurdles: Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, remains unknown to many Utah voters, as he is nationwide. And while the party's fiscally conservative platform may attract Republicans, its permissive social views on drugs, abortion and gay rights may turn off staunch conservatives.

"On too many of the social issues, they go against the basic grain that conservatives in Utah want," said Dave Hansen, a veteran GOP strategist. "When you get to legalization of marijuana, that alone kills Gary Johnson here."

That may eventually prove true. For now, however, a poll released this week  by the Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah found 13% of voters backing Johnson while Clinton and Trump deadlocked at 35% apiece.

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute, said that while most Republican voters in other states had coalesced around Trump once he effectively won the nomination last month, Utah voters "are definitely bucking the trend."

The warning signs for Trump date back to March, when he was walloped in the state's caucuses. Trump got just 14% of the vote, coming in third behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the overwhelming winner, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

There are myriad reasons why Utah voters chafe at Trump's candidacy. The real estate mogul's bombastic tone, tabloid-ready personal life and signature brand of insult politics clash with the sensibilities of adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who make up nearly two-thirds of the state's population.

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Holly Richardson, a former Republican state representative, ticked off a litany of reasons why she opposes Trump.

"He's racist. He's a misogynist — I think he hates women. He's incredibly condescending. I don't think he has any actual policies. He's a vile human, and I don't have any interest in voting for a person like that," said Richardson, now a conservative activist and blogger.

Trump's call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States has particularly rankled Mormons, who settled in Utah in the mid-19th century after fleeing religious persecution.

The LDS church, which does not endorse candidates or political parties, released a pointed statement last year in response to Trump's proposal, saying it was "not neutral in relation to religious freedom" and noting two remarks from Mormon founder Joseph Smith defending other denominations.

"To watch Donald Trump turn and make those arguments about Muslims makes many Mormons deeply uncomfortable," said Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.

The continued resistance can be discomfiting for Trump supporters, who find themselves outsiders in a Republican state for siding with the GOP candidate.

"I totally feel I'm out on a limb," said Bryce Dallimore, a 56 year-old home designer from Salt Lake City, who is drawn to Trump's freewheeling style. Besides his wife, he said, "I don't know of anybody in my family that supports Trump."

The most visible face of Trump resistance is Romney's. Last week, he reiterated his opposition, warning on CNN that Trump could inspire "trickle-down racism."

Romney also sounded open to the Libertarian ticket as an alternative, heaping praise on Johnson's running mate Bill Weld, who, like Romney, served as a Republican governor in Massachusetts.

"I'll get to know Gary Johnson better and see if he's someone who I could end up voting for," Romney said.

Hamstrung by a lack of money and traditional political infrastructure, the Libertarians here are relying on media coverage and word of mouth to power their campaign. So Romney's support could be an enormous boost; his mere mention of researching Johnson inspired Utahns to do the same.

"I heard Mitt Romney is considering Gary Johnson," said Tukuafu, the farmers market shopper. "I'm planning on looking him up."

Disenchanted Republicans make up one constituency Johnson hopes to tap. Others, according to campaign strategist Ron Nielson, include existing Libertarians and adherents of the broader "liberty movement" galvanized by former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, as well as backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who handily beat Clinton in Utah's Democratic caucuses.

Ultimately, Trump may be saved by Utah voters' natural inclination to vote Republican and a strategic desire to deny Clinton an unexpected victory here.

"While Trump may not always be conservative, we know Hillary will always be liberal," said Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican on the Salt Lake County Council.

Newton said she was still weighing her personal dislike of Trump against "the repercussions of giving the vote to a third-party candidate."

"We're frustrated. We want a good candidate to get behind," she said. "We believe in Republican values and principles. Sometimes I wake up and think, 'how did we get here?"'

Follow @melmason on Twitter.

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