With an ode to his adopted home state of Utah and swipes at Washington and President Trump, Mitt Romney launched a political comeback Friday by announcing his bid for U.S. Senate.
Revealing his intentions in a 2/12 minute video, filled with uplifting images of family and the state’s rugged beauty, Romney signaled his intention to run a localized campaign rooted in an old political standby: criticism of the Beltway and its noxious political culture.
“Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah,” Romney said, citing its balanced budget — required, as in most states, by law — its robust export industry and the cordiality he said prevails on its version of Capitol Hill.
In the most politically pointed remarks, he cited the state’s long history of welcoming immigrants, a tradition rooted in the outreach of its dominant Mormon faith, and contrasted that, implicitly, with Trump’s hard-line stance. “Washington,” he said, “sends immigrants a message of exclusion.”
The matter of how Romney will relate to Trump, should he win election, is the most fraught question of his candidacy. The two have shared an alternately antagonistic and tepidly civil relationship.
There is support for both approaches here in Utah, a state Trump carried with just 45% support, the weakest showing of any state he won.
Jane Rook, who lives in Romney’s home town of Holladay, is an independent who backed Hillary Clinton for president because she couldn’t abide Trump. She said she would support Romney’s Senate bid for the sole purpose of seeing him stand up to the president.
“As Romney once said, he’s a con man,” the 77-year-old retiree said. “He’s terrible for America and our image.”
But another professed Romney voter, Rob Beishline, said he shouldn’t automatically resist everything Trump says and does.
”If Trump’s doing something that he doesn’t agree with, he should be a thorn in the side to get it right,” said the 44-year-old architect from nearby South Jordan. “If he’s doing something good, he should work with him.”
Romney, 70, enters the contest a prohibitive favorite, notwithstanding the fact he was born in Michigan, where his father served six years as governor, and built his business and political careers in Massachusetts.
A millionaire many times over, Romney keeps two homes in Utah — in the resort town of Park City and Holladay, an upscale Salt Lake City suburb — and, far from being viewed as an opportunist, is regarded as something of a native son.
He was the consensus pick of Republican leaders to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch the instant the seven-term incumbent announced he would retire in January 2019. “I would vote for Mitt if I ran against Mitt,” Spencer Cox, Utah’s lieutenant governor, said in a tweet that summed up the overriding sentiment within the state’s ruling political establishment.
A rare dissent was voiced earlier this week by the state GOP chairman, Rob Anderson, who suggested other, more Utah-grounded candidates “would be a better fit’ for the state. He subsequently apologized and expressed his regrets after his remarks were published in the Salt Lake Tribune.
A lifelong Mormon, Romney attended college at Brigham Young University in Provo and stepped aside from his lucrative management consulting career to help rescue the financially imperiled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — a role he touted in his announcement video.
He was seen as a hero, and there were hopes Romney might a pursue a political career in the state. Instead, he returned to Massachusetts and served a term as governor before embarking in 2008 on the first of two runs for president.
He lost the GOP nomination to John McCain but became the Republican standard-bearer in 2012, a first for a member of the Mormon faith and a point of particular pride among fellow worshippers.
After his loss to President Obama, Romney settled into the role of Republican elder statesman and emerged as a leading Trump antagonist.
“Here’s what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said in a March 2016 speech at the University of Utah, part of an attempt to thwart Trump’s nomination.
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” Romney went on. “He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Trump parried with a scathing series of insults, saying Romney walked like a penguin, was a loser and “choked like a dog” — he hung out his tongue to demonstrate — in his 2012 race against Obama.
“Poor Mitt Romney,” Trump taunted. “I have a store that’s worth more money than he is.”
But after Trump’s upset victory the two reached an entente of sorts.
Romney’s name was floated as a prospect for secretary of State and he joined Trump for a well-chronicled dinner — garlic soup, frog legs, diver scallops — at a Michelin three-star restaurant at one of Trump’s Manhattan hotels. Afterward, Romney issued a statement effusively praising Trump and his Cabinet picks.
It was unclear, though, how seriously Trump considered his erstwhile critic for the position, and how much he merely sought to display his power and Romney’s deference.
Romney selectively criticized Trump after that, most notably after the president failed to vigorously condemn the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. He also deplored Trump’s vulgar disparagement of Haiti and African nations.
But the two held what was described as a cordial phone conversation in which they discussed the Senate race shortly after Hatch announced in early January he was stepping aside. (The senator resisted Trump’s entreaties he seek an eighth term.)
The leading Democrat in the contest is Jenny Wilson, 52, a member of the Salt Lake County Commission. Her father, Ted, once served as mayor of Salt Lake City and she worked for Romney during the Olympics, organizing volunteers.
Her pursuit is steeply uphill. Utah Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 4 to 1, and voters have not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Frank Moss was reelected in 1970. He lost his bid for a third term in 1976, falling to Hatch in a major upset.
John Rapp, 70, a retired UPS mechanic in Murray, another of Salt Lake’s sprawling suburbs, said he would vote for Wilson because he liked the work she and her father have done for the area. But he fully expects Romney to be sitting next year in the Senate.
“All you have to is be a Republican,” he said, pausing on a chilly afternoon outside Holladay’s branch library. “Even if you were the devil, Republicans would put you in there.”
7:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details and analysis.
This article was originally published at 6:10 am.