Washington • The last time Mitt Romney appeared before the Utah Republican Party’s convention, things didn’t go so well either.
Romney, who had monster popularity ratings in Utah at the time, emerged onstage at the 2010 convention to give his ringing endorsement of then-Sen. Bob Bennett, who was facing challengers for the nomination.
“Some may disagree with a handful of his votes or simply want a new face,” Romney declared. “But with the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett’s skill and intellect and loyalty and power.”
The speech didn’t save Bennett. The three-term incumbent lost that convention fight, and tea-party darling Mike Lee went on to win the seat. Political observers predicted that Bennett would have been a shoo-in had he been able to make the primary ballot.
Romney, now a candidate to take over Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat, has the chance that Bennett never got.
Although Romney came in second at Saturday’s convention (51 percent to 49 percent) to state Rep. Mike Kennedy of Alpine, he already had gathered signatures to guarantee him a spot on the June primary ballot, where he’s likely to be far more popular with Republican voters at large than the more conservative convention delegates.
“There’s a high probability that he wins by a large margin,” said David Magleby, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. “It may be of some utility to his campaign to have a primary contest and broaden his network of local contacts. I don’t think this will be a serious primary challenge for him at all.”
Utah has seen it before. Many times.
Hatch himself faced a primary challenge in 2012 when he failed to get the 60 percent threshold at the state convention to win the nomination outright. In the second round of balloting, he nabbed 59 percent to former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist’s 40 percent.
In the primary, though, Hatch crushed Liljenquist, 66.5 percent to 34.5 percent, and he went on to an easy election to a seventh term.
Hatch and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt were both booed, heckled and forced into primaries during the 2000 Republican state convention against little-known GOP challengers — Glen Davis for Leavitt and Greg Hawkins for Hatch. Both incumbents went on to sweep away their opponents.
“The pattern in Utah elections for a long time has been that many prominent Republicans had to face primary challenges like Romney is facing,” said Magleby, who noted that Bennett’s father, Wallace Bennett, found a primary challenge in each of his three bids for the Senate. He tamped them down every time.
Romney’s campaign declined comment for this story. Kennedy’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Romney also has another advantage ahead of the primary on June 26.
Federal filings show Romney, in his latest report, has $1.15 million on hand in his campaign kitty. Kennedy showed $257,000 in his account. (Romney poured $1 million from his failed presidential bid into the Utah Senate race.)
“Mitt Romney is an exceptionally popular candidate in the state; he has high name recognition; he has lots of money; and that is in contrast to his opponent, who has none of those things,” said Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
People who know Kennedy, Perry added, think of him as a thoughtful politician, but outside that circle, people may not know him at all.
“People just don’t know who he is, what his positions are on national issues and he has two months to make his case,” said Perry, who predicted Kennedy could pick up people who aren’t Romney fans, but said he has to burnish his credentials with a broader mix of Republicans if he wants to survive the primary.
The Utah GOP convention always posed a hurdle for Romney’s candidacy given he’s been branded a carpetbagger who served as governor of Massachusetts and only moved to Utah four years ago. (One minor candidate, Jeremy Friedbaum, actually pulled out a carpetbag as a prop during his speech.)
The national news media zeroed in on Romney’s second-place showing as an example that his star wasn’t burning as bright as when he was the Republican standard bearer in 2012.
“Mitt Romney’s Political Comeback Might Not Be as Easy as He Thought,” Forbes declared in a headline.
But for those who watch Utah politics closely, the convention was never going to be a cake walk — as Romney’s campaign signaled when he said he would collect signatures to ensure a ballot spot.
“What surprises me is that anybody is surprised,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “Look, there was a reason he collected signatures. He knew that this was sort of the way this was going to go down. The Utah Republican convention delegate is very, very, very conservative and Romney is not their candidate, but they also represent a small fraction of the primary electorate, who by and large are very happy with Romney.”
Perry, the Hinckley Institute director, said that while candidates would likely rather have a clear path to the general election, a primary adds another chance to interact with voters. And that could be a bonus for Romney, who, while popular, still has to explain why he’s running from Utah.
“I don’t think this is a tough one for him,” Perry said. “I think he will use this as a way to build his message even further. People in Utah don’t want a coronation, they want him to earn it.”