SALT LAKE CITY — The post-election criticism by Republicans of their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has been hard on his many Utah supporters, especially state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
"I think it's pretty disappointing people view a candidate as someone who can be so easily discarded," Wright said. "It's just so easy to throw someone under the bus."
Romney has been all but abandoned by many prominent members of his party since telling donors shortly after the election that President Barack Obama won because he promised "gifts" to key voter groups.
Would-be contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, wasted no time in distancing themselves from Romney's statements.
That upset Wright and, no doubt, the Utahns who have backed Romney throughout his two bids for the White House, giving the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics and Mormon their time, their money and their votes.
Just 47 percent of the ballots cast nationwide in the Nov. 6 presidential election went for Romney, but 73 percent of Utahns voted for him, his biggest win in any state. In June, he won Utah's GOP presidential primary with a whopping 93 percent of the vote.
"We respect him and we're proud of him, and it hurts. We're all in mourning with him. We believe he was the right guy. We still believe that," Wright said. "But we hurt. We feel his pain."
Unlike the Republicans now eager to forget Romney, Wright said, the Utahns who traveled by bus to battleground states in the weeks before the election or who dug deep to give him millions of dollars haven't given up on their candidate.
"A lot of people were pretty invested," he said. "We weren't just going through the motions. We believed. I'm just not capable of turning that off a week after the election."
The GOP chairman said Romney's statement that Obama won over voters with free health care and other incentives may have been "less than eloquent" but was no reason for party members to turn their backs on the candidate.
"Does that make him a bad guy? No," Wright said. "He made me proud to be a Republican. I'm not going to judge someone over one bad statement over a six-year run for president. I'm more loyal than that."
Another top Romney supporter in Utah, Kirk Jowers, said the candidate has likely been ruminating about the reasons for his loss.
"The danger, of course, is that when you hypothesize about some aspects of it, you could come off as a poor loser," he said.
Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Republicans nationally might be trying to avoid the work of figuring out how to make the party more appealing to voters by going after Romney.
"Unfortunately, it is fairly typical that people look for scapegoats with a loss," he said. "The simple equation these people are making is it's far easier to blame it on Mitt Romney and his campaign than to fix the problems that are facing our party."
Jowers said as long as naysayers "want to hide their heads in the sand" and not address the demographic issues and messaging problems Republicans face, they won't do any better four years from now at the polls.
Utahns will always love Romney despite the election outcome, he said.
"Romney is so much more to Utah. He's our friend. He has family here. He saved our Olympics," Jowers said. "He is much more than a presidential candidate."
Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, agreed that the Beehive State will stand by the man they've known since 1999, when he arrived in Salt Lake City to take over the then-troubled Olympics.
"I think that loyalty will continue," Lockart said. "I have to say I think Romney did a good job representing the party. I'm personally in no way ashamed of the way he represented the party."
Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, suggested it's irrelevant whether Utahns continue to support Romney even as the national party leaves him behind.
"I don't know that it matters. I'm not sure it matters either way. He's not running again. He's not running for anything in Utah," Monson said. "He's not on the stage anymore. The election's over."
Jowers said it's not clear how Utahns will react to seeing how the GOP elite treated Romney. "It's a good question," he said when asked if some might even leave the Republican Party in protest.
"My guess is these little cheap potshots will be very short-lived," Jowers said. "At some point, the Republican Party has to start addressing its future. I think Romney will be greatly respected and appreciated for his candidacy when all is said and done."
Wright said the national party clearly needs to learn from Romney's loss, but the initial reaction by key Republicans won't result in any Utah defection.
"Mitt Romney has done Utah a great service. He politically activated a lot of great people," the Utah GOP chairman said. "They're not going to hang their head and take their ball and go home. They'll be back."
Even Utah Democrats are unhappy with the way Romney has been criticized since the election, Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said.
"When your guy gets attacked the way they're attacking him, you're going to circle the wagons," he said. "Utah Democrats know Mitt Romney. We didn't have this kind of diabolical view that was portrayed."