Opportunity in Utah: Mitt Romney eyes political resurgence

He has already made a fortune in business, managed an Olympics, served as governor and secured a presidential nomination. Now, Mitt Romney, at 70 years old, is considering a new career in Congress.

Those who know Romney best expect him to announce plans in the coming weeks to seek a suddenly vacant Utah Senate seat. Such a decision would mark an extraordinary resurgence for a Republican leader who had faded from the national spotlight after two failed White House bids and an unsuccessful push to block President Donald Trump's rise to power.

While Romney has softened his anti-Trump rhetoric over the last year, longtime associates suggest the former Massachusetts governor is eager to bring a new moral conscience to the Republican Party in Washington.

"Obviously, he's ambitious. But he's ambitious for the right reason: to serve," said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a longtime Romney friend. "Mitt Romney is a grown-up voice that America needs. He will add dignity and common sense."

Romney's closest political allies were not given advance notice of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's announcement Tuesday that he would not seek re-election this fall, but the decision was not a surprise.

Romney, who moved to Utah after losing the 2012 presidential contest, met privately with Hatch last year to discuss Hatch's possible retirement. In the subsequent months, and with Hatch's apparent blessing, he quietly expressed interest in running for the seat in Hatch's absence. In recent weeks, however, Hatch seemed to be changing his mind — at Trump's urging.

Facing the prospect of Romney's resurgence, Trump openly pressured Hatch to stay in the Senate. His private lobbying campaign was bolstered by a public love fest in December, with Trump inviting Hatch with him on Air Force One in December when he shrunk the boundaries of two Utah monuments.

"Congratulations to Senator Orrin Hatch on an absolutely incredible career. He has been a tremendous supporter, and I will never forget the (beyond kind) statements he has made about me as President," Trump tweeted Tuesday. "He is my friend and he will be greatly missed in the U.S. Senate!"

Few in Romney's small inner circle were willing to speak publicly about his intentions Tuesday, preferring instead to keep the day's focus on Hatch's decades of public service. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private discussions. None tamped down speculation about Romney's Senate ambitions.

Should he run, Romney is not expected to face significant resistance in Utah's GOP primary contest or in the November general election. Romney, who has five sons and 24 grandchildren, is perhaps the highest-profile Mormon in America and is hugely popular in Utah, where about 60 percent of residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Beyond his religious connections, many remember Romney for turning around Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Olympics after a bribery scandal. In the same city, he delivered a scathing speech in the spring of 2016 attacking Trump as "a fraud" who "has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president."

The takedown resonated in Utah, a state steeped in a culture of courtesy, where people struggled to embrace Trump's brash demeanor and comments about women, minorities and Muslims. He finished third in the state's Republican presidential caucus and earned a smaller percentage of the vote than any GOP presidential candidate in the last two decades.

Just last October, GOP Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called Trump's tenure up to that point "erratic" and noted that governing is different than running a business and is not a "dictatorship."

But beyond Utah, Romney remains hated by many Trump loyalists. The hashtag NeverRomney quickly sprung up on Twitter in the hours after Hatch's announcement. There also emerged a sense of resignation that little could be done to block his path to the Senate.

"The Republican base views Mitt Romney with the same disdain that they view Mitch McConnell," said Andy Surabian, senior adviser to a pro-Trump super PAC allied with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. "I think the conservative movement will look to weaken him at every turn to ensure he never becomes anything more than a junior senator from Utah."

That's just fine for some Utah Republicans, who are concerned with the fate of the GOP under Trump's leadership.

Derek Miller, the president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, who had been considering a run for Hatch's seat, said Romney would be a stabilizing voice of the Republican Party.

"The Republican Party is going through turmoil right now, unfortunately," Miller said. "I think Gov. Romney's voice is an important voice right now in that debate of what the Republican Party stands for."


Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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