Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney cruised to victory in Utah’s GOP Senate primary Tuesday, making him the strong favorite to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), who announced his retirement this year after over 40 years of service in the upper chamber.
Romney, the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2012, bested state Rep. Mike Kennedy, who, despite Romney’s commanding lead in the polls, forced Romney into a runoff after delegates at the state’s Republican convention in April awarded Kennedy a narrow victory.
Accusations of carpetbagging dogged Romney for much of the campaign. Though Romney is very popular in the state, owing both to his work on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and his status as the country’s most well-known Mormon politician (over 50 percent of Utah’s population identifies as Mormon), his opponents were quick to point out his out-of-state background.
“I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here,” Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said in a February interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
During one debate, Kennedy, a doctor and lawyer by trade, used his opening statement to “welcome” Romney to the state.
Romney’s relationship with President Donald Trump was also under the microscope, with Kennedy accusing Romney of not being a forceful enough supporter of the commander-in-chief’s agenda. Many delegates at the state Republican convention accused Romney of being a “RINO” ― a “Republican in name only.”
Romney has had a bumpy relationship with Trump. As a presidential candidate in 2012, Romney actively sought Trump’s support, resulting in a crucial endorsement from the real estate mogul during the tail end of the Republican primary. Yet by the 2016 election, Romney’s public statements on Trump had become much more critical.
“Here’s what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said in a highly publicized speech during the 2016 presidential campaign. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Tension between the two had subsided enough by Trump’s victory in November 2016 that the then-president-elect strongly considered naming Romney his secretary of state. Though Trump ultimately nominated Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to the post, Trump endorsed Romney in this year’s primary, tweeting that the candidate would “make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch.”
However, Romney’s relationship to Trump, and the widespread expectation that he would not be a lockstep supporter of the president, defined the final days of the primary campaign, with Romney giving conflicting clues about his intentions vis-a-vis the commander-in-chief.
In an op-ed published Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune, Romney wrote that he would not be adverse to criticizing the president.
“People ask me why I feel compelled to express my disagreements with the president. I believe that when you are known as a member of a ‘team,’ and the captain says or does something you feel is morally wrong, if you stay silent you tacitly assent to the captain’s posture,” Romney wrote. “I appreciate the argument made by those who believe we should stay silent, but I cannot subscribe to it.”
However, in an interview with The Associated Press published late last week, Romney refused to say whether he agreed with President Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy that has dominated headlines for several weeks and has separated thousands of children from their families ― a development Romney called “a heartbreaking circumstance” that “puts America in a terrible light around the world.”
Having cinched the Republican nomination, Romney now faces off against Democratic nominee Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake City councilwoman. Wilson has run on a platform focused on reducing tax loopholes for the wealthy and more generally shifting the tax burden from working people to the rich.