The 2018 midterms got a bit more exciting on Tuesday. The longest serving Republican senator in American history, Orrin Hatch of Utah, announced that he would not run for re-election. His retirement is unlikely to provide Democrats with much of an opportunity to win another Senate seat, but the door is now wide open for Trump nemesis and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has reportedly told people he would enter the race if Hatch retired.
So, let’s break down Utah’s newly open Senate race …
1. Utah is really, really red.
Pretty much by any measure you look at, Utah comes out as one of the most Republican-leaning states in the country. The GOP holds a massive 4-to-1 advantage over Democrats in voter registrations. According to Gallup, only Wyoming gives Republicans a larger lead in party affiliation. Republicans have won 15 consecutive Senate elections in the state dating back to 1974. Democrats haven’t even won a governor’s race in Utah since 1980. And even though Trump won the state by a smaller margin than every Republican presidential nominee except one1 dating back to 1964, he still was able to win by 18 percentage points.
Though Hatch has been unpopular in the state, he would have been a favorite for re-election. A November survey gave him a 15-point lead over potential Democratic nominee Jenny Wilson. Democrats are desperate for another Senate seat to contest in 2018 — in addition to Nevada and Arizona — but Utah probably isn’t the best place for them to look.
2. But Trump is unusually unpopular for a Republican.
Trump managed to carry Utah handily in 2016, but that likely had more to do with his party affiliation than Trump himself. Trump won only 45 percent of the vote in a race that featured independent conservative Evan McMullin as well as Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump won just 14 percent of the vote in Utah’s Republican caucus, which was far less than the 45 percent he won nationally during the nomination process. To boot, his net approval rating has been teetering around break even in the state. For a Republican president in Utah, that’s bad.
Will Utah’s dislike of Trump affect the 2018 Senate election? Well, maybe not. Utah is red enough that almost any Republican candidate will be a clear favorite there despite Trump’s poor numbers. That’s especially true if Romney — who is well-known and has a clear anti-Trump resume — wins the nomination. That said, if the GOP nominates a more Trumpian candidate, it’s possible to imagine him or her having some problems. After all, Trump won only a plurality (as opposed to a majority) of the Utah vote in 2016.
3. Anti-Trumpism has won in Utah already.
Last year, there was a trial run of sorts for anti-Trump Republicanism in Utah. Former Provo Mayor John Curtis ran in a special election to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. During the primary, he admitted that he didn’t vote for Trump, and he won the primary against two candidates who did. That race was fairly close, however, with Curtis winning only 43 percent of the vote. Curtis then went on to win the general election by 32 percentage points, which was significantly greater than Trump’s 24-point margin in the district. Curtis’s win is particularly interesting given the large swing against Republicans in most 2017 special elections.
These numbers suggest that even if Romney decides not to run, a GOP candidate in his mold could win a primary and would be a favorite in the general.
4. Romney would be a heavy favorite
If Romney does enter the race, it’s hard to see him losing — the primary or the general. In a survey taken in November, Romney was rated among the most popular politician in the state. His net favorability among all voters was +47 percentage points — far higher than Trump’s. He also scored a +73 net favorability among Utah Republicans. (By contrast, Romney’s popularity among GOP voters nationally plummeted when he spoke out against Trump during the 2016 primaries.) The same poll found Romney with an astounding 51 percentage point lead against potential Democratic nominee Wilson.
In short: If Romney runs, he’d be as big a favorite as favorites get.
5. A candidate can take the argument directly to the voters.
One last logistical point: Republican candidates used to have to win or place second in a statewide convention to get on the primary ballot. That might have been a problem for a Romney-esque candidate. Longtime Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated in such a convention in 2010. But the state law was changed in 2014; now, candidates can get on the ballot via the convention or by gathering signatures.2 Curtis, for example, was beaten by the more conservative Chris Herrod in his district’s convention in 2017, but he got on the ballot for the primary and won anyway.
While it is unclear who will be strongest in a convention setting in 2018, widespread appeal is now more important for a candidate to win the nomination. If the polls are correct, Romney has the popularity necessary to win a nomination through a primary.