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Story highlights

Hillary Clinton's longshot hopes of winning Utah are being revived

GOP nominee Donald Trump is unpopular in the Beehive State

(CNN) —  

Prominent Utah Republican politicians and a newspaper owned by the Mormon Church are taking the lead this weekend denouncing Donald Trump, raising the prospect of a GOP presidential race loss for the first time in more than a half-century.

The Deseret News, which has not issued a presidential endorsement in 80 years, on Saturday called on Trump to leave the race, after a 2005 video emerged of him making lewd and sexually aggressive remarks.

“The idea that women secretly welcome the unbridled and aggressive sexual advances of powerful men has led to the mistreatment, sorrow and subjugation of countless women for far too much of human history,” the editorial board wrote. “What oozes from this audio is evil. We hear a married man give smooth, smug and self-congratulatory permission to his intense impulses, allowing them to outweigh the most modest sense of decency, fidelity and commitment.”

The condemnation follows a swath of Utah GOP office-holders saying they won’t vote for Trump, with some calling him to exit the contest against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Jason Chaffetz – a leading Clinton critic in Congress – both disclaimed support for the GOP nominee on Friday night. Republican senators, House members and governors from across the country followed Saturday with similar statements.

Whether that signals a rank-and-file Republican voter groundswell against Trump remains an open question. Utah, where about 60% of residents are members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, is among the most Republican states in presidential elections. It hasn’t backed a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

“Even with all his problems, Trump still has enormous advantages simply by virtue of being the Republican nominee,” said Brigham Young University political science professor Chris Karpowitz. “The question is, how large is the group of Utah Republicans who will stay with the Republican nominee no matter what – even when he behaves in ways that are clearly at odds with the state’s core values and the values Utah Republicans have claimed to champion? We’re going to test that question this year.”

But this weekend’s turn against Trump by Utah GOP leaders suggests Clinton may yet be in a position to nab the state’s six electoral votes. It’s hardly a new concept. Trump’s vulgarities – in addition to certain policy positions like on immigration – have been thought to be particularly politically toxic in socially conservative Utah. 

“This has been a reliably red state for a very long time,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “People are going to kind of really pull away from what support he had. And the third-party candidates are likely to get more support.”

Longshot Clinton target

Until a month or so ago, there was serious chatter about Clinton being able to nab a Utah win. Trump himself mused about the notion of losing the otherwise reliably Republican state. He said in an August speech his campaign was “having a tremendous problem in Utah.” 

That had died down of late, after September saw a series of Clinton campaign stumbles and Trump’s position in the race seemed to stabilize. But that’s all likely now out the window with the Deseret News’ chastisement of Trump, on top of his already shaking standing in the state, Perry said.

Even Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a strong social conservative, isn’t likely to help anymore.

“Mike Pence was a mitigating factor. But people are now not willing to rationalize Trump” after the video became public, Perry said.

That’s where the third- (and fourth-) party candidates come in.

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson’s campaign is based in Utah, and he seems to enjoy at least some residual goodwill from his eight years as a Republican governor of New Mexico, a nearby western state. Then there’s conservative-leaning independent Evan McMullin, who in recent months has made direct appeals to #NeverTrump Republicans. The Utah native and Mormon Church member – a Brigham Young University graduate – has the potential to further siphon off support from Trump.

Even those advantages for Clinton may still leave her short in Utah. Her unfavorably ratings in Utah are high, and the Clinton brand has never been particularly popular there. Bill Clinton finished third in Utah in his 1992 White House race, behind Republican President George H.W. Bush and Independent Ross Perot.

Yet Hillary Clinton still has a shot this year. She’s unlikely to build a whole lot more support in Utah, but she could possibly squeak through if a fair number of rank-and-file Republicans simply don’t vote for Trump.

“We will not see voters in Utah turn to Hillary Clinton en masse – Utah voters see her very unfavorably, too,” Karpowitz said. “But disgust with the statements themselves and the signal from state political leaders that Trump has gone too far are likely to hurt him significantly. Whether it’s enough to swing the election to Clinton is uncertain, given that it’s a four-way race.”

She could try to run up the score in Salt Lake City, a majority non-Mormon city that backed Barack Obama in 2008. A growing Latino community – more than 20% of the city’s population according to 2010 census figures – provide ripe opportunities for the Clinton campaign to pick off votes. Even small-but-growing pockets of African-American and Asian-American voters could help.

Prominent anti-Trump Republicans

The disavowal of Trump by Chaffetz is particularly notable. As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he’s been a leading Clinton critic over her use of a private email server as secretary of state, and her conduct in the 2012 Benghazi attacks, among other matters.

Yet he and Herbert are not the only prominent Utah Republicans already in the anti-Trump camp.

That list includes Sen. Mike Lee, normally an ideological compatriot of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who withheld his endorsement from primary rival Trump, but has since backed him. And Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, for months one of the most vocal Trump critics from within the Republican fold. On Saturday morning, a Republican senator from a neighboring state, Mike Crapo of Idaho, a Mormon, also pulled his support from Trump.

“The Republican leadership in Utah is in a full-scale revolt against Donald Trump,” said Karpowitz. “In my lifetime, we’ve never seen state-level party leaders abandon a Republican nominee like this.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who now lives in Utah at least part-time and is Mormon, has also conspicuously blasted Trump throughout the presidential season. He did so again Friday about the latest revelations.

“Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world,” Romney tweeted.

Whether this all works to Clinton’s advantage in Utah remains an open question, Karpowitz said.

“If we assume that Clinton’s support is fairly stable and ranges somewhere between 25-35%, it wouldn’t take much of a shift to make the race essentially a four-way dead heat,” he said. “But all of this is uncertain because we’re in completely uncharted territory. We’ve simply never seen anything like this before at the presidential level.”

But the notion that Utah is even competitive is not good news for Trump 31 days out from the election. The Deseret News editorial spelled out challenges he faces over the next month.

“This is one of those rare moments where it is necessary to take a clear stand against the hucksterism, misogyny, narcissism and latent despotism that infect the Trump campaign,” the paper wrote. “Even as we hope for a more auspicious future of liberty, prosperity and peace for the nation.”