Republican Mike Kennedy dominates special election to open Utah Senate seat

Kennedy challenged Mitt Romney for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 2018.

Two years after he lost the GOP U.S. Senate primary to Mitt Romney, Republican Mike Kennedy is headed back to the Utah Legislature. Republican delegates in Utah County picked Kennedy over five other candidates to fill the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, who is resigning to take a spot in Spencer Cox’s administration.

“I love to serve, and this is an opportunity for me to step in and serve in a different way,” Kennedy said about his return to Capitol Hill.

Kennedy served three terms in the Utah House, succeeding Republican John Dougall in 2012 when Dougall first ran for state auditor. In 2018, Kennedy stunned many of his colleagues in the Legislature when he decided to not seek reelection and challenge Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. He narrowly defeated Romney at the GOP state convention with 50.88% of the delegate vote, forcing the former Republican presidential nominee into a primary election. Romney cruised to victory in the primary, capturing 73% support.

Kennedy says he learned several lessons from that unsuccessful primary campaign and is eager to apply them when the Legislature starts in January.

“During that campaign, I was able to go all over this state and talk with thousands of people,” he said following his victory Tuesday. “I learned that when we look for solutions to problems, we need to trust people to be able to solve them. They’re not incapable of making good decisions. We just need to let them.”

Kennedy got into some hot water during that primary contest after Romney objected to Baptist minister Robert Jeffress being invited by the Trump administration to offer a prayer at ceremonies surrounding the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Romney said Jeffress was a “religious bigot” for calling Mormonism “a heresy from the pit of hell.” Kennedy sparked outrage when he called Jeffress to apologize for Romney’s comments. Jeffress claimed Kennedy apologized “on behalf of the state of Utah,” but Kennedy said he only apologized for Romney’s comments.

Kennedy won a clear majority of delegate support in every round of Tuesday’s online election. Other candidates vying for the seat included David Shallenberger, who forced Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, into a primary this year; Staci Carrol, a member of the American Fork City Council and the daughter of former Senate President John Valentine; and Jeanette Bennett, the longtime publisher of Utah Valley Magazine. Jon Anderson, another candidate in the race, is the former brother-in-law of current U.S. Rep. John Curtis.

Kennedy, who holds a law degree from Brigham Young University in Provo and received a medical degree from Michigan State University, says his medical background will be useful as lawmakers push to help the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to balance the health-related needs of citizens with their constitutional rights,” Kennedy said. “We have to make sure businesses can function while promoting health and well-being. A lot of people are hurting from the government’s response to this crisis.”

Kennedy’s return to the Legislature is the final move in the game of political musical chairs surrounding Spencer Cox’s move to the governor’s office. In addition to poaching Hemmert from the Legislature, Cox’s running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Deidre Henderson, did not run for reelection to the Utah Senate. Her seat was filled by Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. The vacancy left by McKell in the House was filled by retired Major General Jefferson Burton.