SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney said in a video announcement Friday that he will run for the US Senate from Utah, setting out on a glide path to Washington where he will likely play a central role driving the direction of the fractious Republican Party.
“I have decided to run for United States Senate because I believe I can help bring Utah’s values and Utah’s lessons to Washington,” he says in the clip.
Until relatively recently, this would have been an unlikely path for Romney, who retreated from the national spotlight after losing the 2012 presidential election to then-President Barack Obama. But Romney has re-emerged on the political scene as a powerful voice calling out the inflammatory statements and conduct of President Donald Trump.
Romney’s fiery rebukes of Trump’s crude comments on topics ranging from the character of Mexican immigrants to sexual harassment made him a hero of the #NeverTrump movement and a set of Democratic admirers. His criticism of Trump has been especially notable considering the President once considered him as a candidate for secretary of state, a courtship that many friends of Romney later viewed as a token gesture by Trump to generate publicity.
Romney avoided direct broadsides at the President Friday, though he did say Utah “welcomes legal immigrants from around the world — Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion. And on Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect.”
Romney is running to replace retiring GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch. In the video, he focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Utah, a state where he established his permanent residency in 2014.
The 2012 presidential nominee said he was seeking the new role because he hoped to replicate some of Utah’s policy and economic successes at the national level — from curbing government spending to enhancing bipartisan collaboration on legislation in Washington.
“Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah,” he says in the video.
Easy race expected
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is expected to have an easy race because of his enormous popularity in Utah, where he attended college at Brigham Young University and has long owned a home in Park City. Beyond his deep connections to the Mormon church, he drew broad admiration from Utahns after helping to turn around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic games.
During conversations with several dozen Utah voters when Romney was mulling a run in December, many mentioned his leadership of the games, which were mired in a bribery scandal when he left his business to take them over in 1999, as a key asset in his quest for the Senate post.
“Utah became associated with bribery, which was completely against anything Utah stands for — it stands for ethics and doing the right things — so this was really hurtful to the people of Utah to be tainted with that serious issue,” said Fraser Bullock, who worked closely with Romney as the chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the 2002 games.
“You needed an inspirational leader, and Mitt became that,” Bullock said. “He became the face of the games — that there was hope to get out of this dark place. And little by little, month by month, people could see the progress that he was making; that he was completely transparent, that he was engaging and sunny — and all in to make this work.”
Utahns became acquainted with Romney over the three-year run up to the games, which ultimately generated a $100 million profit. The success of the 2002 Olympics games solidified his profile, which was only heightened by his presidential run.
“He was right in the center of the sweet spot for Utah politically when he ran for president,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who advised Romney during that campaign. “He has a center-right philosophy that’s quite consistent with the main stream of Utah.”
Romney’s popularity far outpaces that of Trump, whose approval rating in Utah ranks far below that of other Republican presidents. Romney beat Obama in the state in 2012, 73% to 25%.
By contrast in a three-way race in 2016, Trump won Utah with 45.5% to Hillary Clinton’s 27.5%. Independent Evan McMullin, a Utah native who positioned himself as a voice of the #NeverTrump movement, won 21.5% of the vote.
Still, his likely Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, slammed Romney before he even announced his run, painting him as someone who doesn’t understand the state.
“Utah needs an independent voice for our communities that are struggling, not a hand-picked candidate of the Washington establishment,” said Wilson, a member of the Salt Lake County Council. “Utah families deserve a Utahn as their senator, not a Massachusetts governor who thinks of our state as his vacation home.”
Some Republicans object
There has been disquiet among some Republican Party activists about Romney’s bid for the Senate seat, because his wealth and power boxed out other local contenders.
“In many respects, Mitt Romney is being coronated instead of elected,” said Don Guymon, a member of the Utah Republican Party Executive Committee.
Guymon said changes to Utah’s election system — allowing potential candidates to collect voter signatures to qualify for the ballot as an alternative to competing in the party’s unpredictable caucus convention — has “made it so some people just presume that Romney is going to be the nominee from the party.”
Guymon said his own concerns about Romney date back to his unsuccessful 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. In that race, Romney staked out far more liberal positions on issues like abortion than he would as governor of Massachusetts or as a presidential candidate.
“Mitt’s had various positions over the years, so what are we getting? Which Mitt are we getting?” Guymon said. “He’s never held a town hall and answered questions from Utah citizens yet.”
In another rebuke to Romney this week, Rob Anderson, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party, bluntly told the Salt Lake Tribune that he believed Romney’s entry was preventing candidates who would be a better fit for Utah from entering the race. He also compared Romney’s bid to that of Hillary Clinton’s run for Senate in New York.
“Let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here,” Anderson told the Salt Lake Tribune in an interview published Wednesday. “I have two questions for Mitt. First of all, why? And how do you expect to represent Utah when you don’t live here?”
Anderson backtracked on those comments in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon where he said Romney had reached out to him directly about his concerns, and had accepted his apology “without hesitation.”
In his post, Anderson said he regretted that his comments “came across as disparaging or unsupportive.”
“That was never my intent. While my method of speaking tends to be very matter of fact, it is also true that tone and tenor do not come across well in print,” Anderson said. “I’ve no doubt that Mitt Romney satisfies all qualifications to run for Senate, and as Chairman of the Utah Republican Party, I will treat all candidates equally to ensure their path to the Party nomination is honest and fair.”
One Republican who welcomed Romney’s bid: House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was Romney’s running mate in 2012.
“Our party and our country are always better off when Mitt is engaged, and I know that he will put his unparalleled experience, conservative leadership, and lifetime of service to work for Utah in the US Senate,” Ryan said in a statement.
Steps to nomination
In stark contrast with Romney’s 2012 presidential primary campaign — where he tailored his message to the ideologically pure voters who control the early state contests — he has more recently touched on controversial issues like global warming and expanding legal immigration that are important to the more pragmatic voters of Utah.
Romney now has a choice between two potential paths to the nomination. He can make the risky choice to participate in the state Republican Party nominating convention in April, where staunchly conservative delegates have spurned favored GOP candidates in the past. Alternatively, Romney can collect the 28,000 signatures required to qualify for Utah’s primary ballot. For weeks, he has contemplated doing both, according to associates.
The sometimes contrarian views of the GOP delegates at the nominating convention could create a challenge for a candidate with mainstream appeal. In 2016, popular Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was defeated by libertarian Jonathan Johnson, the Overstock.com chairman, at the convention. Herbert ultimately won re-election with 66.7% of the vote in November 2016.
So far, Romney’s interest in Hatch’s seat appears to have essentially cleared the Republican field. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, initially showed interest in the race, but a source familiar with his plans said he does not see a viable candidate to compete with Romney at this point. Bannon’s political star, meanwhile, has faded in the aftermath of comments attributed to him in a bombshell book published in January.
While building his team, Romney has spent the past few weeks “listening and learning” in conversations with Utah voters, as one aide put it. His team has been conscious of trying to craft a very Utah-centric message about the state’s future — without dwelling on his experience during the Olympics or his past presidential ambitions.
Friends and former advisers also say they don’t want to predict what kind of profile he would cut in Washington — or try to guess what issues he will focus on.
“I think few people fully appreciate the education process that running for president is,” said Leavitt, who led Romney’s transition team in 2012. “You have to understand geopolitical issues. You have to understand regional issues. You have to understand issues across every sector of the economy, and human services. He’s very well grounded in all of those as a result of the years he spent preparing to be a presidential candidate.”
“That’s unusual,” Leavitt said. “Most people who run for the Senate for the first time have not had that experience, nor does their voice start out as confident and well-grounded as he will. So I expect he will be Mitt Romney — and that he’ll speak with confidence. And there will be times when he aligns with the mainstream, and times that he doesn’t.”
Romney’s close friend John Miller, who was a national co-chair of Romney’s 2012 campaign, said he doesn’t expect Romney to be a forceful Trump critic during this run because there would be no point in alienating Utah voters who support the President.
Miller laughed when thinking about Romney transitioning from the role of a former CEO to becoming one of 100 senators: “I think he’ll find that quite challenging, actually.”
But he said Romney was clearly not done with politics and felt compelled to run in Utah because of his father, George Romney, who instilled a strong sense of service and volunteerism in his children.
“I think he’ll find it invigorating, because he needs to have a voice,” said Miller, a Utah native. “He’s young enough; he’s agile physically and mentally, and he wants to do something. I think he’s kind of tired of sitting around on the sidelines.”