February 16, 2018
Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate, is poised to announce his candidacy for a US Senate seat in Utah, marking a return to politics for one of the president’s fiercest conservative critics.
Romney is strongly favored to win the seat being vacated by Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. The announcement was expected on Thursday, but Romney delayed the decision until Friday in light of a mass shooting left 17 people dead at a high school in Florida earlier this week.
Mitt Romney, Trump critic on the right, poised for Senate run in Utah
Romney, who enters the race with a national platform and near universal name recognition, is expected to run a “hyperlocal” campaign, according to reports. The goal is to present himself as a candidate willing to work for every vote even if his ascent is a likely foregone conclusion.
The Republican’s political resurgence has already generated a fractious debate among conservatives about how to run for national office in the era of Donald Trump.
Conservatives who view the president as divisive and undignified yearn for a strong critic in Congress to serve as a moral center for a party upended by Trump’s unorthodox presidency. Yet some would prefer Romney to follow in the mold of the retiring Utah senator, a White House ally who played an instrumental role as chairman of the Senate finance committee in muscling through an overhaul of the US tax code. The bind is one Republican lawmakers running for re-election across the country will face.
“As senator, Romney will emerge, as he has in the past, as a voice of reason and as someone who is interested in substantive discourse,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“But the expectation that you can serve as a counter-balance to the president and the White House by occupying one Senate seat in Utah must be tempered. You have to be a bit more realistic.”
During the 2016 campaign, Romney distinguished himself as Trump’s campaign nemesis. He attacked the real estate developer as a “phony” and a “fraud” and publicly urged his party not to nominate Trump.
Trump returned fire, criticizing Romney for his failed presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, saying he “choked like a dog”. Trump also said that in 2012 Romney begged for his endorsement, which he granted: “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees’ – he would have dropped to his knees.”
Romney briefly moderated his position after Trump won the presidency, and was considered for secretary of state.
Having slammed the candidate, Romney then traveled to New York for a much-mocked humble-pie dinner with president-elect Trump, after which Romney offered a glowing review of Trump’s transition thus far and his winning campaign.
It was their second meeting since the election and took place in the thick of Trump weighing choices to be secretary of state.
After he failed to win that role, Romney dipped back below the horizon for a period.
He resumed his role as a critic last summer, after Trump blamed both sides for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which an alleged white supremacist drove his car into counter-protesters and is accused of killing one and injuring several. Romney also spoke out against the party’s embrace of the Republican candidate Roy Moore, who lost the Senate race in Alabama after being accused of child predation.
Mitt Romney, Trump critic on the right, poised for Senate run in Utah
Romney has toyed with a run for months and his candidacy was all but certain when Hatch announced that he would not seek re-election after serving more than four decades in the Senate. Trump had reportedly encouraged Hatch to remain in the Senate in an effort to block Romney from the chamber. But Hatch ultimately decided to step aside, elevating Romney as his potential successor.
Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, but the electorate was divided over Trump, whose crude commentary on women, immigrants and refugees, and inflammatory, boastful style, repelled voters there. Trump won Utah, but earned just 45% of the vote, the lowest of any Republican nominee in a generation.
Yet those who know Romney well caution the former governor is running to represent Utah – not to be Trump’s foil.
“The governor is not running as a protest of the Trump presidency but as a consensus-builder who can get things done,” said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Romney’s 2012 campaign.
“He’ll speak out on major issues where he feels the need to raise his voice,” Williams said, adding: “But the governor is a conservative Republican. He will be with the president 80% or 90% of the time on issues, like repealing Obamacare.”
As a former presidential nominee, Romney would enter the Senate with a national platform unlike that of other prominent Trump critics such as the Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who will not seek re-election in 2018, and Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican, who also plans to retire after his term ends in 2018. Perhaps the only match is Flake’s fellow Arizonan, John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who defied the party and the president over repealing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
One conservative strategist saw Romney as a lock to win election in Utah – and just as likely to become an irritant to the White House.
“Just as there’s no doubt that Mitt Romney will be the next US senator from Utah, there’s no doubt that Mitt Romney will become President Trump’s greatest Republican foe in the Senate.”
Mitt Romney, Trump critic on the right, poised for Senate run in Utah
Romney was the Republican nominee in 2012, a race he lost to the incumbent, Barack Obama. In that election, Romney carried Utah by nearly 50 points.
Romney, who is Mormon, is beloved in Utah, where he now lives with his wife, Ann, despite his Michigan roots and a four-year tenure as governor of Massachusetts. A recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune found that 64% of Utah voters – including 18% of Democrats – would support Romney for Senate.
His ties to the state include a degree from Brigham Young University and a stint at the helm of the Salt Lake City organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, for which he is hailed as savior who transformed the struggling organization and turned the Games into a success.
But his potential ascent in a state where he was not born and where he has not lived for much of his life has irked some powerful Republicans in the state.
“I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah,” Rob Anderson, the chair of the state Republican party, told the Salt Lake Tribune, in an unusual interview. It is rare for a party chairman to criticize a potential candidate, especially one poised to be the party’s nominee.
Before the expected announcement, the Democratic candidate for the seat, Jenny Wilson, sought to highlight Romney’s short history in the state.
“Utah families deserve a Utahn as their senator, not a Massachusetts governor who thinks of our state as his vacation home,” Wilson said in a statement.
“I don’t need binders full of policy papers about the state of Utah, because I live in Utah, I raise my family in Utah, and I serve the community in Utah,” she added, referring to an infamous remark Romney made during a presidential debate in 2012. He responded to a question about pay equity by claiming to have asked aides to help find names of suitable women to serve on a body looking into the issue, which resulted in him having “binders full of women”.
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