Jenny Wilson decided to run for federal office, she said Thursday, primarily out of frustration with the way Utah’s senators and members of Congress tend to vote in lockstep with one another, and with Republican leadership.
A 6-0 block on issues like health care, immigration and public lands, Wilson said, shuts out the dissenting views of Utah constituents who are outside, and sometimes inside, the state’s predominant conservative ideology.
“Until you get balanced government,” she said, “you’re not going to have balanced solutions.”
But in deciding which seat to pursue, Wilson said there were a number of factors that pushed her toward a Senate race. She had already experienced the U.S. House — while working as chief of staff to former Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah — and wasn’t anxious to face the perpetual campaign cycle of a two-year House term.
And at the time, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney was rumored to be preparing to run but had not yet declared his candidacy in Utah. For Wilson, that meant either an open Senate seat or a faceoff with Sen. Orrin Hatch, for whom polls suggested voter interest was waning after more than 40 years in office.
“Of course," Wilson said when asked if she would prefer running against Hatch instead of Romney. “Hatch was vulnerable.”
Matt Whitlock, spokesman for Hatch, said the seven-term senator has been one of the most successful legislators in American history and chose to go out on his own terms, despite polling that showed him comfortably ahead of Wilson in a hypothetical matchup.
“I suppose I would be trying to change the subject at every opportunity too if I were in a situation as bleak as Mrs. Wilson’s,” Whitlock said.
A spokeswoman for Romney declined to comment.
Wilson acknowledged the long odds against her candidacy, she but reiterated the need for ideological diversity in Utah’s federal delegation.
And she added that if elected, her experience as a former congressional employee, her connections in D.C., and the David-and-Goliath nature of her victory would put her in a position to flex more muscle than the typical freshman senator.
“If I’m the upset of 2018," she said, "I can write my own ticket.”
One of the first votes to be cast by a potential Sen. Wilson would be to elect a leader of the Senate’s Democratic caucus. Currently, Chuck Schumer of New York is the Senate minority leader.
It is assumed that Schumer will seek to retain his leadership seat — or the role of Senate majority leader if Democrats claim a majority in the chamber — but Wilson said she’s not ready to say yet whether she supports the minority leader’s retention or favors new leadership for the caucus.
“I would need more information,” she said.
Wilson said she recently met with Schumer and walked away feeling good about their conversation. She was also impressed, she said, with the way Schumer urged his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to maintain decorum when the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cast the deciding vote in opposition to Republican leadership and preserve the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
“It wasn’t a time for celebrating by the Democrats,” Wilson said. “[Schumer] stopped that.”
Whether Schumer or someone else leads the Senate Democrats, Wilson said she does not expect to be a rubber stamp for the caucus’s positions.
She gave the example of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination by President Donald Trump to be the next Supreme Court justice. She said it was odd that so many senators, including Hatch, put out statements of support or opposition shortly after Kavanaugh’s selection was announced, weeks ahead of any formal hearings or votes on confirmation.
“You’re supposed to sit and listen,” Wilson said. “I’m not an easy vote. Utah comes first.”