Expect a lot of contenders for Romney’s old seat — and a few surprise entries

Recent congressional races in Utah attracted a dozen or more Republican contenders.

If recent history is any guide, there should be no shortage of candidates in next year’s U.S. Senate race. Following Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision not to seek another term, the prospect of an open seat in Congress will be tantalizing for ambitious politicians, especially Republicans.

The last time a Democrat won a statewide office in Utah was more than a quarter century ago when Jan Graham was reelected as Attorney General in 1996. It’s been even longer since Utahns have sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Frank Moss was reelected in 1970 but lost his reelection bid to Orrin Hatch in 1976.

Considering that dominance, the biggest hurdle for Romney’s eventual replacement will likely be securing the Republican nomination.

  • In 2018, following then-Sen. Orrin Hatch’s retirement, a dozen Republicans, including Romney, jumped into the race to succeed him.

  • Congressman John Curtis had to fight off 10 Republicans to win the nomination in 2017 following former Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s decision to retire.

  • In 2020, Congressman Rob Bishop’s retirement lured 12 Republicans into the contest, which Rep. Blake Moore eventually won.

  • Congressman Chris Stewart’s surprise resignation earlier this year drew 13 Republican candidates into the race before Celeste Maloy emerged as the Republican nominee.

Before Romney’s decision, two candidates were already hoping to wrest the GOP nomination away from him — Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs. With Romney gone, expect that field to grow.

“Romney’s exit completely changes the field,” longtime Utah political strategist Spencer Stokes says. “Now those who didn’t want to get into a battle against a well-known incumbent will consider it.”

Those rumblings have already started.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson addresses the Utah Republican Party 2023 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

Some mainstream Republicans who may be taking a hard look at the race include current members of Congress John Curtis, Blake Moore, and Burgess Owens, Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Roosevelt Mayor JR Bird and entrepreneur Brad Bonham, who was recently selected as one of Utah’s representatives on the Republican National Committee.

Next year’s race is likely to draw candidates from outside of traditional politics too. Tim Ballard, perhaps trying to capitalize on the success of the heavily fictionalized autobiographical film “Sound of Freedom,” is said to be readying to launch his campaign in October. Ballard quietly parted ways with the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad in July, reportedly after complaints were made against him by multiple employees. Ballard also resigned as CEO of the Glenn Beck-backed anti-trafficking Nazarene Fund organization.

The speculation about Ballard got louder when Attorney General Sean Reyes, who previously said he was considering running against Romney, declared on Wednesday he would not run for the seat and would seek reelection in 2024 instead. Reyes, a longtime ally of Ballard and listed as an associate producer on “Sound of Freedom,” said on social media he planned to endorse a “dear friend” in the race.

(Saul Martinez | The New York Times) Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, speaks at the Turning Point Action conference, in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Sunday, July 16, 2023.

Right now, there is no clear front-runner to replace Romney. A July poll conducted by Noble Predictive Insights found more than half of Utah Republican primary voters would be undecided without Romney in the race. Reyes, who is not running, had the most support at 16%, followed by Henderson and Wilson with 7%.

Romney’s absence will change the flavor of 2024 and force candidates to change their messages.

“It’s going to be more difficult for lesser-known candidates to throw bombs at a person who is no longer in the race,” Stokes says.

Instead, expect candidates to pivot to a message highlighting their conservative bona fides, which could make it harder for them to differentiate themselves.

“There will be no lack of very conservative people in the race,” Stokes says.