Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced his candidacy for a US Senate seat in Utah, marking a return to politics for one of the president’s fiercest conservative critics.
“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,” Romney said in a video released online Friday.
Entering the race with a national platform and near universal name recognition, 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, after a mass shooting left 17 people dead at a high school in Florida earlier this week.
In the launch video, Romney makes no reference to Donald Trump, instead presenting himself as a candidate willing to work for every vote even if his ascent is a likely foregone conclusion.
He did, however, allude to anti-immigrant sentiment from the White House and deep acrimony in Congress. Utah “welcomes legal immigrants from around the world – Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion,” he said. “And on Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect”
The Republican’s political resurgence has already generated a fractious debate among conservatives about how to run for national office in the era of 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 one of Trump’s nemeses on the right. 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 humbling 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 said there were “very fine people” among white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a rally where an alleged white supremacist drove his car into a crowd and killed a woman.
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.
A foil to Trump?
Romney has weighed a run for months since Hatch announced that he would not seek re-election after more than four decades in the Senate. Trump had reportedly encouraged Hatch to remain and block Romney, but Hatch ultimately decided to step aside.
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.
In 2012, Romney lost the presidential election to incumbent, Barack Obama, but he carried Utah by nearly 50 points.
Romney is beloved in Utah, where he now lives with his wife, Ann. A recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune found that 64% of Utah voters – including 18% of Democrats – would support Romney for Senate.
A Mormon like many Utahns, Romney earned a degree from Brigham Young University helmed the Salt Lake City organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and was 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 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”.
Those who know Romney well caution that 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.”
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