Utah GOP chief slams Mitt Romney’s expected Senate run; Romney delays announcement, citing Florida shooting

The Utah Republican Party chairman blasted Mitt Romney’s anticipated Senate run, hitting him for “essentially doing what Hillary Clinton did in New York” — campaigning in a state he hasn’t spent much time in.

“I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here,” Rob Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview.

It’s highly unusual for a party chairman to criticize a potential candidate. And Anderson’s comments came in the run-up to Romney’s expected announcement Thursday morning. He has since postponed that, citing “respect for the victims and their families” after a deadly school shooting in Florida.

If Romney declares, he’d be the instant front-runner and presumptive nominee. Still, Anderson, who is generally seen as a moderate voice within the Utah GOP, suggested that he’s just “using name recognition to win a seat.”

“I have two questions for Mitt. First of all, why? And how do you expect to represent Utah when you don’t live here?”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Anderson speaks during the State Central Committee meeting at the Park City Library Saturday, November 4, 2017.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, carried Utah in the 2012 presidential election by nearly 50 points over President Barack Obama. He made the state his official residence in 2013 and actively votes as a Holladay resident.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll from January showed he would handily win the seat being vacated by Sen. Orrin Hatch; some 64 percent of those surveyed said they’d back Romney while 19 percent chose Democrat Jenny Wilson. And supporters quickly rushed to his defense Wednesday. Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, for one, called Romney “Utah’s favorite son.”

That idea gives Anderson some heartburn. There were three or four other “good, conservative people” that planned to run, he said, declining to give names, but they didn’t feel they had a chance against Romney, who “has been poaching all of the talent as far as campaign and messaging and financing.”

“Nobody wants to go out there like David and Goliath and get defeated by the Romney machine,” he said.

And Anderson isn’t sure Romney would represent the party well, either. “He has never been a Trump supporter,” he said. “I just want somebody to support the party platforms.”

A spokesperson for Romney declined to comment. But Anderson said he later apologized to Romney, who reached out to him.

“Pursuant to an article today in The Salt Lake Tribune,” he wrote on the Utah Republican Party’s Facebook page. “I regret that my comments about potential Senatorial candidate, Mitt Romney, came across as disparaging or unsupportive. That was never my intent. While my method of speaking tends to be very matter of fact, it is also true that tone and tenor do not come across well in print.”

“Governor Romney and I spoke this afternoon. He was extremely gracious. In a time when many choose to react without knowing all of the facts, I am grateful he reached out to me to discuss this matter, and even more so that he accepted my apology without hesitation.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, though, called Anderson’s remarks “uncharacteristically harsh” and knocked him for failing “to maintain a neutral position as party chairman.”

“I have always said that Mitt is our favorite adopted son, and I was thrilled when he moved his residence to Utah,” he said in a written statement. “I would be even more thrilled to see him run for Senate.”

Before Hatch announced he would not seek re-election this year, the senator joked that he might be willing to step aside if Romney wanted to give elective office another try. So while he acknowledged that he likes Anderson “quite a bit,” he said he also has to “strongly disagree with him” over Romney’s qualifications.

“Mitt has been a household name in Utah for decades, his family history goes back to Mormon pioneers, and he’s done a lot for our state,” Hatch said Wednesday. “I urged him to run because I think he is a once-in-a-generation public servant, and I have no doubt he’ll represent our state and interests well.”

Utah Rep. Mia Love, too, called Romney a “supporter and a friend” who is “absolutely” qualified to run for Senate. Chaffetz questioned whether Anderson is “familiar with Mitt Romney’s history.”

“He did graduate from Brigham Young University. He did come in and live here and help save the Olympics in 2002,” he said. “He’s had a home here for quite some time. His ties to Utah are deeper than they are in Massachusetts. … If he had become the president we certainly would be claiming him.”

But Anderson, while surely the most prominent and the most vocal, isn’t the only dissenter. Romney’s expected candidacy is also annoying primarily right-wing GOP members who suggest that he’s ignoring the party and will win by name recognition and money alone — not platform.

“He’s being coronated,” said Don Guymon, a member of the Republican State Central Committee. “I’m very concerned by that.”

“The general public perception is that Mitt Romney will be the automatic next senator,” said Phill Wright, former state GOP vice chair.

“Mitt Romney will be UT’s next US Senator,” wrote state Auditor John Dougall on Facebook. “Not necessarily because of his vision for the future or his hard work but because the press and the UT Republican Party will help ensure his coronation.”

On Tuesday evening, Dougall wrote an extensive Facebook post on his thoughts about Utah’s soon-to-be-available U.S. Senate seat.

In the post, he said everyone has been focusing on who they want Utah’s next senator to be — not what they want that person to be.

Dougall said Utahns want a strong conservative who supports Trump and understands the state’s issues. As far as Dougall can tell, he wrote, Romney doesn’t like the president very much. Dougall also said he’s concerned about Romney’s knowledge of Utah.

“We need to understand where Mr. Romney stands before we decide where he’ll sit,” he wrote.

After posting, Dougall shared an article from U.S. News and World Report, which says the state auditor is “seriously considering” running against Romney for the open seat.

Romney, who supported the Count My Vote initiative, is expected to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, a relatively new option. It’s unclear if he would also go the traditional convention route, getting approval from party delegates, but he said in 2014 that system will “rarely produce a result that reflects how rank-and-file Republicans feel.”

If he doesn’t go through the convention, it might further inflame those who already doubt his allegiance to the state party.

At least two other Republican candidates plan to participate in the caucus and convention. Tim Jimenez, an environmental engineer who launched his campaign in January, said there’s “contention and anger” that Romney might bypass delegates.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has been positive that someone else is running besides Mitt Romney. They’re just glad to have someone else in the race,” Jimenez said. “I don’t believe he represents those of us who live in Utah.”

That’s the same argument Democrats are making against Romney.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, joked on Twitter that GOP chairman Anderson “got my speech by mistake and he actually read it.” Jenny Wilson, the Democrat running against Romney, responded with a list of her “deep roots” in Utah, including attending school here, serving as a Salt Lake County councilwoman and being a descendant of Orson Pratt, “one of the first settlers to enter the Salt Lake Valley.”

“I think [Romney] is miscast as a candidate for Utah,” she said. “If he’s interested in the U.S. Senate, Massachusetts is the better place for him to return to.”

The last time Utah had an open Senate seat was in 1992, when Sen. Jake Garn stepped down after three terms. Hatch, though, has held onto his seat for more than four decades. Some of the angst over Romney, then, Anderson suggested, is that before he’s even announced his candidacy the race seems determined in his favor.

“He’s going to be very difficult to beat.”