Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney.
If the former presidential candidate wants the title, it’s likely his.
With Sen. Orrin Hatch’s announcement that he’s retiring at the end of his term, the speculation of whether Romney would seek the seat in November hit overdrive. He’s reportedly interested, but those closest to Romney, who made Utah his official residence in 2013, say no decisions have been made.
And one Romney confidant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Tuesday was “Orrin’s day” and the Romney circle didn’t want to intrude on that.
But the trajectory seems set.
“We all know the direction this is going,” said the Romney insider. “And I think we’ll know within the next couple of weeks definitively.”
Romney would be the instant front-runner if he declares.
“It’s a deep red state and one where Romney has very deep roots and extremely strong support,” says Kevin Madden, a CNN contributor and one of Romney’s top advisers in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “But the more important factor in determining just how strong his odds are is knowing how he would approach the task of running. It’s just Mitt’s nature to give everything 110 percent. If he runs, he’ll run like he’s 20 points down and he has to earn every single vote. He loves the campaign trail and would probably relish being back out there again.”
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who carried Utah in the 2012 presidential election by nearly 50 points over President Barack Obama, is the highest-profile and most well-liked of the potential candidates for the seat.
“If Governor Romney throws his name in the hat, I think he’ll keep a lot of people out,” Rob Anderson, Utah Republican Party chairman, said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for one encourages the calls for Romney to run for the seat. He’ll be an “instant celebrity” in the Senate, the governor believes, and “that’s a good thing for Utah.”
“I think he will start not at square one like most freshman senators,” he added, saying Romney has “more cachet than virtually anybody else” and strong “national prominence.”
He was the first Mormon to win the nomination from a major party for president, and despite advisers suggesting he distance himself from his faith, he refused to do so. In his first run for president, he spoke out specifically about his Mormon religion, arguing he wouldn’t shy away from it — all points that earned rave reviews in Utah, where a most residents are followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A Salt Lake Tribune poll in October showed Romney running away with the vote in a hypothetical field of eight candidates, including Hatch. Some 44 percent of those surveyed said they’d back Romney, the only other person to earn double digits was Democratic Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson. She got 15 percent while Hatch scored 8 percent.
Romney confidants told The New York Times and The Boston Globe that Romney is definitely considering a run and will make his decision in the coming weeks — but that there’s no imminent announcement. Romney had assumed Hatch would run again, the advisers said.
Hatch said in December the two hadn’t spoken recently.
Spencer Zwick, a longtime Romney fundraiser, told The Times that he wasn’t sure Romney would enter the race but said that “of all the people who can run, Mitt will represent and honor the legacy of Senator Hatch more than anybody.”
The White House, though, wouldn’t be as excited to have Romney in the Senate. With Hatch, President Donald Trump had a loyal supporter, who was effusive about Trump’s legacy during a tax reform victory lap in December, saying the president may go down as one of the best ever.
Romney, on the other hand, has been highly critical of Trump, calling him a “phony” and a “fraud” during the 2016 Republican primary. Trump had encouraged Hatch to run again, though also said that Romney was a “good man.”
Romney, who has kept mostly to himself since running for office, save for a few social media posts criticizing Trump, may have several reasons to stay out, including the fact his wife, Ann, suffers from multiple sclerosis and that, if elected, he’d be a junior senator without any seniority to score top committee assignments.
Even so, Madden sees many reasons Romney would jump in.
His love for the trail is probably only eclipsed by his passion for the issues that are part of today’s public debate,” the former adviser said. “Transforming the economy, a stronger national security and foreign policy posture — all of these are important to him, and he could feel compelled to make a difference on those issues again from the United States Senate.”
And Romney has shown interest before in joining Congress’ upper chamber. He lost a closely contested race to the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994.
Longtime Utah pollster Dan Jones says this is Romney’s seat to win — if Romney actually wants it. “Romney would be extremely formidable,” he said. Any matchup against Romney, Jones predicts, would come out in his favor.
Wilson, he said, had a better chance of winning were she to run against Hatch.
Wilson, who worked with Romney on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, called him a “national figurehead” with more focus on reforming the Republican Party than working on Utah issues.
“I know Mitt and respect him, but I think that what we need is someone who really understands what is happening in our cities and our counties,” she said. “I come at this interested in bringing my expertise having served at the local level.”
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who is also considering a bid, “isn’t as well known as he ought to be,” said Jones, whose polling has shown many in Stewart’s district have no opinion of him.
And Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, “has her work cut out for her” with a challenge from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Jones said.
“I don’t see her crossing over now,” Jones said. But “If Romney chooses not to run, then I think Mia Love becomes a very prime potential candidate.”
Stewart said Tuesday he’s unsure whether he’ll mount a bid, noting that he wants to take time to discuss it with his family before making an official decision.
World Trade Center Utah CEO Derek Miller is “very seriously considering” a run — but only if Romney is not in the race, he said. And he fully anticipates the former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential contender to jump in by the end of the week.
“It’s in his best interest not to allow the chaos of a political vacuum to exist for too long,” Miller said. If he doesn’t announce soon, Romney could potentially face an expanding field of candidates. Miller added: “Next week the floodgates will break loose.”
Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas gave a tip of the hat in her statement about Hatch’s departure.
“We believe that this Senate seat belongs to the people of Utah — not to [former presidential strategist] Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, or their wealthy friends,” she said. “We look forward to seeing Governor Romney of Massachusetts on the campaign trail.”
Editor’s note • Courtney Tanner reported from Salt Lake City.