Romney enjoys immense popularity and near universal name recognition in Utah
Potential obstacles to a Senate campaign have melted away
If Mitt Romney wants to become Utah’s next senator, there’s virtually nothing standing in the 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s way.
The former Massachusetts governor, who made Utah his official home in 2014, is expected to announce his Senate bid within a few weeks, according to several sources in Romney’s orbit, giving him enough time to pursue the complex process to get on the Utah ballot.
But because of Romney’s immense popularity and his near universal name recognition here, potential obstacles have melted away. Formidable contenders who considered running for retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat, such as Boyd Matheson, Sen. Mike Lee’s former chief of staff, and Rep. Mia Love, took their names out of contention as soon as it was clear how seriously Romney was considering a bid.
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s estranged former strategist and a fierce Romney critic, explored backing a more conservative candidate in Utah. But Bannon has achieved pariah status in this state following recent remarks that Romney hid behind his religion during the Vietnam War. And Bannon’s sudden political isolation in the aftermath of comments attributed to him in a bombshell book published last week could make him less of a force going into this year’s elections.
“Given (Romney’s) favorite son status in Utah, it’s about as certain as you could be – if you wanted to put odds on it – it would be an extraordinarily high probability of victory,” said Quin Monson, a pollster who advises Love and John Curtis, the former Provo mayor who recently replaced Rep. Jason Chaffetz in the House.
Interviews with several dozen Utah voters here in recent days punctuated that point. Almost no one spoke negatively about Romney. Nearly all of them cited his role in rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, as well as the reverence for him within the LDS community here, as major assets to his candidacy.
Even a number of Democrats (some of whom disliked Romney as a presidential nominee) said they would now consider supporting a potential Romney Senate bid because they view him as a powerful voice to counter Trump in Washington at a time of instability.
“Trump scares me. He thinks he’s still on ‘The Apprentice.’ The guy just has no scruples,” said Tina Wright, a 62-year-old Democrat from Ogden, as she sipped coffee with a friend at a Salt Lake City mall Saturday. “It’s embarrassing to me. It’s embarrassing to our country. I think other foreign countries are looking at us, saying ‘What happened there?’”
By contrast, Romney “just has a good moral background and he’s an honest guy,” Wright said. “He showed what he could do with the Olympics.”
Her friend Leslie Whisler, a 59-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City who voted for Trump because she aligned with him on policy issues, now believes the President is unfit for office and wants to see him out of the White House, concerned that he is leading the US toward war.
With such a high national profile, Whisler said she believes Romney could be a stabilizing force in the Senate, even as a freshman senator.
“That’s just it with Romney, you may not agree with everything he says, but you know he’s a professional,” Whisler said. “He acts like a professional.”
Team falling into place
In the days since Hatch announced that he would not seek an eighth term in the Senate, Romney’s team has quickly fallen into place. His longtime aide Matt Waldrip is expected to manage the campaign, according to several sources. His former finance chairman Spencer Zwick and top strategist Beth Myers would return in similar roles to help guide the campaign, the sources said.
Some Romney confidantes were frustrated that Hatch waited so long to announce his retirement, because Romney will have a limited window of time to court and secure the backing of conservative delegates who dominate the Utah GOP’s nominating convention. Participating in the convention is not required, but Romney is expected to pursue that path as a sign of respect to the most ardent conservatives in his party.
Simultaneously, his campaign will have to collect the 28,000 signatures required to secure his place on the primary ballot. (Several recent Republican candidates, including the state’s governor, Gary Herbert, lost at the convention, but then won the primary after gathering the requisite signatures).
In the general election, Romney’s likely Democratic opponent is Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake County council member who is the daughter of a former Salt Lake City mayor.
Though she is a strong candidate, said Bradley A. Olch, the former Democratic mayor of Park City, explained her odds in simple terms: “It’s Utah, and she’s a Democrat.”
Olch handicapped the likely outcome of that general election matchup: “70-30,” he said.
Romney’s biggest challenge “is probably just re-establishing himself as somebody from Utah,” said Olch, noting that some of Romney’s critics will accuse him of “carpetbagging” after spending much of his career on the East Coast.
Still, Olch said he didn’t expect those attacks to hold much weight: “He has spent a lot of his life here,” said Olch. “He obviously was here for the Olympics. He went to BYU. So he has a huge Utah connection. And even when he was governor of Massachusetts, he still had a residence here in Utah.”
The trickiest political terrain that Romney will have to navigate will be his relationship with Trump. While Trump’s approval numbers in Utah are much lower than they were for other Republican presidents, several political strategists said a campaign threaded with attacks on the President would be foolish in this staunchly Republican state.
While Romney’s critiques of Trump over the past two years have made him a hero to some Democrats and moderate Republicans nationally, several voters here said they’d like to see less of that.
“I couldn’t understand why he did that; they’re both Republicans,” said Edwin Lauder, an 88-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City. “I said to my wife, ‘Do you believe this is Mitt saying this?’ That’s not like him.”
Otherwise, Lauder had nothing but praise for Romney: “He’s such a clean cut, LDS man,” he said. “There’s no questioning that he means what he says.”
Still, there was uneasiness in some other GOP circles with Hatch’s closeness to the President and the obsequious praise that he showered on Trump after the passage of the tax reform bill.
After Trump flew to Utah last month to celebrate the scaling back of the Bears Ears and Grand-Escalante national monuments, Hatch angered some conservative LDS voters by attempting to defend the President’s support of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused by several women of sexual assault and harassment, in some cases when they were teenagers.
Matheson, who considered running for Hatch’s seat, noted that Utahns expect to see their representatives show independence from the President, particularly on clear-cut moral issues like the Alabama Senate race or the shocking display of racism by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
“They definitely want someone who is going to call balls and strikes,” Matheson said in an interview. “They want someone who is loyal to principle, and not just the party lines.”
“The fact that Romney has been one of the immovable objects on those core principles” will help him, Matheson said. “I think it’s something Utahns hope we would see from more of our elected officials.”
He added: “I think you’ll see (Romney) call the President out when he needs to, but anyone who is expecting this (race) to be a major battle between Mitt and Trump is going to be sadly disappointed.”