Robert Gehrke: Romney says family has discussed reelection bid — ‘Dad, do whatever you wanna do.’

While back in Utah this week, Sen. Mitt Romney is touring part of the defense industry, infrastructure made possible by federal money and has spoken during a Sutherland Institute event.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Sen. Mitt Romney flies a Teal 2 drone during a tour of Teal Drones in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. At left is Evan Paul.

With just a little wiggle of his finger, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney sent a small drone buzzing across a fenced patch of grass, then zipping back toward the headquarters of the company he was touring Tuesday.

It bobbed and weaved, too near to the brick building for his comfort, floated down just inches off the ground, then back up, then down, then — at least it felt like — flew directly toward my head before nudging forward to rest on a bright orange landing pad.

Much like the drone, whether Romney will seek another term in the U.S. Senate next year is very much up in the air.

On Tuesday, the senator said he met with his family earlier this month to discuss his prospects and whether he would enter the 2024 race.

“I told them where I am, and their view is, ‘Dad, do whatever you wanna do,’” Romney told me. “You’ve got the time you’ve got left, and use it productively.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Sen. Mitt Romney holds a Teal 2 drone during a tour of Teal Drones in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. At left is George Matus.

While we wait, Romney is staying busy doing the things senators do.

On Tuesday, I shadowed him as he toured Teal, a company based in South Salt Lake that produces dictionary-sized drones for the military, mainly to provide eyes in the sky. They have been put to use in Ukraine, but can also be used along the border or by forest officials scouting for game or potential fires before they grow.

Later Tuesday, he was visiting Northrop Grumman. And a day before, Romney spoke to a gathering at the Sutherland Institute.

On Wednesday he will visit a bridge spanning Little Cottonwood Creek in Sandy along with Utah Department of Transportation executive director Carlos Braceras to tout how this bridge, and 89 others in the state, will be rebuilt thanks to the infrastructure bill he helped negotiate.

The last two years, Romney said, were extremely productive — between the infrastructure bill, legislation to spur microchip manufacturing, electoral college reform, and passage of the Respect For Marriage Act.

“But we did it with a group of about 10 — five Democrats and five Republicans — who worked together,” he said. “That’s harder now, so I’m getting a sense of how we will be able to work together in the Senate and how that will work with the House … So for me, that’s what I’m assessing: Can I make the next 7 1/2 years productive? And if they’re going to be like the last couple, yeah. If they’re not, there are probably other ways I can contribute.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

He also faces a political reality. Once Romney was the most popular political figure in the state, but repeated clashes with Donald Trump — including twice voting to convict Trump in impeachment proceedings — have torched his goodwill with the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party.

That doesn’t deter Romney from continuing to oppose Trump again being the party’s nominee. He is urging the other contenders without a realistic chance to win to drop out by the end of February and unify behind one candidate who could defeat Trump rather than splitting the field and making it easier for Trump to win the nomination. Right now, Romney doesn’t have a favorite for which of the rivals it should be.

“I could probably support almost any one of the other Republicans running before I’d ever think about supporting Donald Trump. Actually I would not support Donald Trump. So one of the other Republicans, I hope, becomes our nominee,” he said. “I think it’s a longshot though. I think Donald Trump almost certainly is the nominee.”

Indeed, polling shows Trump with a wide lead nationally. A pole by Noble Insights gave the former president a 30-point lead in Utah over his closest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by 30 points, the Noble Insights poll revealed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Sen. Mitt Romney tours the headquarters of Teal Drones in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. From left are Romney, George Matus, Melanie Lindberg and Jay Weight.

The same poll shows Romney leading in a hypothetical matchup among his likeliest Republican opponents (although it did not include former congressman and current Fox News host Jason Chaffetz). If Romney jumps in, it would be a fierce fight with an uncertain outcome, and there has even been talk that he could run as an independent, much like Sen. Lisa Murkowski has done in Alaska.

His team remains confident.

“It’s his race to lose, and he knows it,” a source in the Romney camp told me Tuesday. “He’ll have the resources, political organization and voter support to win if he decides to run, and he is not fazed by the prospect of a primary.”

Romney has said he will likely make his decision by sometime in October. Until then — as they were Tuesday with the drone — the controls are in his hands.

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