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Can Anything Stop Romney From Winning Utah’s Senate Seat?

The word leaked out Wednesday afternoon that Willard Mitt Romney (it’s important to print his full name once in a while) would be imminently announcing a run for one of Utah’s U.S. Senate seats. While Romney chose to delay his campaign rollout after a mass shooting at a high school in Florida, the announcement is still expected to come within days. He’ll be seeking to fill a seat soon to be left vacant by a retiring Orrin Hatch.

In case there is any ambiguity, this seat is Romney’s to lose.

To start with, Utah is deep red, and in state polls thus far, Romney is up on Democrat Jenny Wilson by big margins.

Romney is up big in early polls of Utah’s U.S. Senate race
Pollster Poll dates Jenny Wilson Mitt Romney
Dan Jones Jan. 15-18, 2018 19% 64%
Dan Jones Nov. 16-21, 2017 21 72
Dan Jones Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2017 26 64

In a January poll — conducted by Dan Jones for the Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah — even 18 percent of Utah Democrats said they would support Romney, who was the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee. And in a Politico/Morning Consult poll from the same month, a plurality (40 percent) of registered voters nationwide thought that he should run for the seat.

While Romney served as governor of Massachusetts and was born in Michigan (where his father was governor), his Utah ties are deep. He was brought in to help salvage the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics following a scandal, and he is perhaps America’s most prominent Mormon — Utah is the center of Mormon life and around 60 percent of Utahns belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He also resumed buying real estate in Utah in 2013 (he previously owned a home in the state but he sold it before his 2012 run), and one Utah friend told the Washington Post in 2015, “He feels very at home here.”

Now, could anything get in Romney’s way? There are some possibilities.

Despite how Romney himself might feel about Utah, some doubt his connection to the state. Utah’s GOP chair let it rip on Romey in an interview this week. “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 said.

Expect to see more “he’s not a Utahn” arguments from Romney’s opponents.

Anderson later apologized, but his dissent speaks to another dynamic that has the potential to derail Romney if the race goes national. Anderson was an early Trump supporter — his wife served as Trump’s Utah communications director — and Romney has a famously fraught relationship with the president. In March 2016, at the height of the presidential primaries, Romney made a much-buzzed-about speech dismantling and denouncing nearly every part of Trump’s campaign and platform. After the election, Romney met Trump for dinner and participated in history’s most tortured photo-op with the president-elect at the New York restaurant Jean Georges; Romney did not get the secretary of state position he was apparently angling for (though 13 percent of people think he is the secretary of state, according to Pew). According to an Economist/YouGov poll from January, 38 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats think that Romney would oppose President Trump in the Senate. If the White House and pro-Trump super PACs choose to make hay of Romney’s history of digs against Trump, the race could get tighter.

Still, Trump did relatively poorly in Utah, winning only 45 percent of the vote in 2016, compared to Romney’s 73 percent in 2012 and John McCain’s 62 percent in 2008. Indeed, Utah is an outlier in the sense that it is ruby red but has also given Trump relatively tepid marks so far. Here’s Gallup’s 2017 numbers showing what percentage of each state’s residents identify as Republican compared to what percentage approve of the job Trump is doing:

The race could also get more interesting if a pro-Trump candidate chooses to run in Utah. That scenario seems unlikely, given the strength of Romney’s numbers. But not so long ago, Steve Bannon and his allies were proclaiming that they’d primary every establishment Republican to kingdom come.

Dhrumil Mehta contributed research.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.