Mitt Romney on Friday announced his long-expected Senate bid in his adopted state of Utah with a low-key rollout intended to duck roiling Republican divisions and avoid signaling that he will play the role of foil to President Trump.
In his announcement, and in a video, Romney touted his leadership of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, his tenure as Massachusetts governor, his degree from Brigham Young University and his 24 grandchildren. He made no mention of Trump.
That strategy, however, sets up a potentially fraught campaign path for the party’s former presidential nominee as he tries to remake himself in Utah. In a Republican Party now dominated by Trump, most mainstream GOP leaders have struggled to stay neutral amid the president’s controversies.
Still, Romney will try.
“This is not a Trump protest candidacy,” former Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.
Romney is likely to face plenty of questions from reporters — and from within his own party — about his views on Trump and his past statements criticizing the president.
In an early sign of the challenge, Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson sharply criticized the two-time presidential contender on Wednesday as a political interloper who is disconnected from the state and a potential headache for Trump.
“Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here,” Anderson said in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. He compared Romney to Hillary Clinton, who grew up in Illinois but successfully ran for a Senate seat in New York in 2000 as a high-profile newcomer.
If Romney’s soft launch is any indication — a social media push in which the former Massachusetts governor reintroduced himself to Utah voters by video — he is not seeking out those questions as he begins his campaign.
The video, produced by veteran Romney advisers and running over two minutes in length, recalled Romney’s role in the Olympics and put an emphasis on “Utah values.”
In a speech at a GOP fundraiser in Provo, Utah, on Friday night, Romney highlighted his experience working across the aisle as the Republican governor of Massachusetts with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, a skill he said would be useful in Washington.
In answer to a question, he soft-pedaled his relations with Trump.
“By and large,” Romney said, “his policies are very similar to the ones I campaigned for,” and he praised the president for lowering the corporate tax rate.
But, he added, “I’m not always with the president on what he might say or do, and when that happens I’ll call them like I see them.”
Romney’s tone differs dramatically from that of other Republicans seeking Senate seats across the country, or considering doing so. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination there, promised to stay in the race even if Sen. Bob Corker changes his mind and seeks reelection. Blackburn is a steadfast Trump supporter, while Corker has been one of his biggest critics.
Also this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, signaled in conversations with major Republican donors over the past week that he is moving closer to challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
These races and others will provide windows into Trump’s power and popularity as the GOP seeks to retain and expand its control of Congress in 2018.
Romney’s careful Utah debut, planned for months by his family and longtime aides, cannot paper over the reality of his return to politics: Many Republicans nationally are desperate for him to be a champion for the party’s traditional beliefs and a counterbalance to the president on issues such as morality and Russian election interference.
Romney, 70, has been a popular figure in Utah, if not a resident, for decades. Yet even there the race for the GOP nomination is unlikely to be the sleepy stroll to victory that some Romney allies are hoping for.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon said in recent months that he would like to draft a populist candidate to oppose Romney in the Utah GOP primary race, but his falling-out with Trump over journalist Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” stalled that project. A number of little-known Republicans have announced Senate campaigns ahead of Romney.
“Mitt has the advantage in terms of name identification and resources, but he’s got to connect with Utah,” said Boyd Matheson, the opinion editor of the Deseret News and former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Matheson flirted with his own Senate campaign last year and spoke with Bannon about the possibility but decided against it.
“He’s already been putting the shoe leather in, getting around the state, and you can tell it’ll be a Utah-centric campaign,” Matheson said.
A Salt Lake Tribune poll last month showed Romney with the support of 85 percent of Utah Republicans — and 18 percent of Democrats.
Other Utah Republicans have encouraged Romney to run. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who announced in January that he would not seek reelection this year, has done so for months.
If elected, Romney associates said he would operate in the Senate as an independent-minded lawmaker but would resist being labeled as a reliable Trump critic in the model of retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who regularly speaks out against the president.
More often, these associates privately compare Romney to Corker, who is reconsidering his retirement plans and leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker has fiercely criticized Trump and recoiled at Trump’s behavior, but he also has at times seemed torn about his leanings and worked with Trump on the party’s big agenda items.
“Mitt Romney is not running for Senate merely to be a critic of Trump. I don’t think he’d do this just to poke Trump in the eye. The call to service matters to Romney regardless of who’s in the White House,” said GOP operative Rick Wilson, who opposes Trump. “There are broader conservative movement questions that will fall to him naturally, but that’s not the motivation.”
Foreign policy is one area where Romney could clash with Trump and join the ranks of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been ill, as one of the party’s more hawkish leaders on that front. While Trump considered Romney during the presidential transition as a possible secretary of state, Romney is far more hostile toward Russia and supportive of international institutions.
“The governor believes America cannot be withdrawn on the world stage,” Williams said. “He is much more of a hard-liner when it comes to dealing with a thug like Vladimir Putin,” the Russian president.
Salt Lake County Council member Jenny Wilson (D) is also running for the seat and has said the victory of Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) would bring attention to her candidacy in a ruby-red state.
Romney’s campaign leadership team will deliberately remain small to avoid criticism that the Utah campaign is simply a way of restarting the Romney political machine that boosted him during his bids for the White House in 2008 and 2012.
Matt Waldrip, a Utah-based aide who worked on Romney’s presidential efforts, will manage the campaign. M.J. Henshaw, a former aide to a Utah congressman, will be the spokesman; consultant Will Ritter, who is close with Romney and his family, is handling media and digital activities through his firm Poolhouse, which produced the campaign’s kickoff video. Romney confidants, such as strategist Beth Myers and financier Spencer Zwick, also will be involved.
“Gone are the days of worrying about the 99 counties in Iowa,” said former Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden. “This time, it all comes down to crucial Salt Lake County.”
Matthew LaPlante in Provo, Utah, contributed to this report.