Mitt Romney is edging closer to a 2018 Senate run.
The former GOP presidential nominee is huddling with Utah’s class of GOP power brokers, contacting the state’s major political donors, and hitting the trail for candidates running in local races amid mounting speculation that the state’s longtime senator, Orrin Hatch, will retire. Romney is also raising money for House and Senate Republicans, winning him favor with GOP leaders ahead of a treacherous midterm election.
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Last week, Romney attended a high-profile gala in Salt Lake City hosted by the Sutherland Institute, a prominent conservative think tank. The event drew a number of notable Utah political figures, including Sen. Mike Lee and Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. Romney shared a table with former Gov. Mike Leavitt, a longtime supporter he’s been in touch with amid his deliberations. He also had a private conversation with the night’s featured speaker, conservative commentator Bill Kristol.
Kristol declined to say what the two discussed. But, he said, “Assuming Sen. Hatch retires, I hope Mitt runs. He’d be a very good senator.”
The Senate might seem like an unexpected landing place for the 70-year-old former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate. Yet those who’ve spoken with Romney in recent days are convinced he’s prepared to jump in. After falling short in his quest for the White House and then being passed over by President Donald Trump for secretary of state, friends say Romney still has unquenched political ambitions.
On a campaign swing through Idaho last month for gubernatorial hopeful Tommy Ahlquist, Romney met with Republican mega-donor and wellness company executive Frank VanderSloot. Romney told the donor he was seriously thinking about running for Senate, according to several people familiar with the discussion.
The former GOP nominee has spoken about a prospective Senate campaign with a number of key figures in the state, including Sen. Mike Lee and Salt Lake City real estate investor John Miller. He has received encouragement from longtime friend and campaign donor Kem Gardner, a prominent Utah businessman.
“I think he’s giving it some serious consideration,” said Miller, who was national finance chairman on Romney’s 2012 White House bid. “He vets these things very carefully.”
Two veteran Romney hands and gatekeepers, Spencer Zwick and Matt Waldrip, have begun reaching out to senior Republicans to take their temperature on the political atmosphere in the state.
Romney, a devout Mormon who currently resides in Holladay, Utah, has taken steps to increase his visibility on the state’s political scene. After the new year, he cut a tribute video that played at an event for Gov. Gary Herbert. This summer, he issued an endorsement for Katie Witt, a former Romney campaign staffer and candidate for mayor of Kaysville, a small city in the eastern part of the state.
Romney also backed Utah Rep.-elect John Curtis, and is expected to host an event for him before the end of the year. On Monday, Romney’s spouse, Ann, sent out a tweet promoting the couple’s support for Curtis.
Romney, who built a sizable fundraising network during his 2008 and 2012 presidential runs, is also giving his party a hand in races beyond Utah. He recently traveled to Massachusetts to host an event for Gov. Charlie Baker, who is up for reelection next year. Next month, he’s slated to attend a New York City donor retreat hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, his former vice presidential running mate. The former governor has also been making fundraising calls for Congressional Leadership Fund, a pro-House GOP super PAC, and is expected to host an event for the organization in California early next year.
Over the course of the year, Romney has been active in Idaho and Arizona, both of which border Utah and have heavy Mormon populations. He held a fundraising event for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake prior to the Republican’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2018.
People close to Romney envision him running as a senior statesman-like figure — one who won’t reflexively oppose the administration but is willing to air his differences with Trump. Appearing before a donor conference in Park City, Utah in June, Romney offered up an implicit jab of Trump’s America-first approach to foreign policy and said the White House was too consumed with palace intrigue.
Romney has long been critical of the president. During the 2016 campaign, Romney emerged as a leader of the Republican “Never Trump” movement, blasting the GOP candidate as a “phony, a fraud” and urging primary voters to nominate someone else. Tensions between the two cooled after the election, when Trump considered Romney for secretary of state.
Aides to the 83-year-old Hatch insist he hasn’t decided whether to seek reelection. Trump has encouraged Hatch to run again on several occasions, according to two people briefed on the discussions.
Hatch, who has held his seat since 1977 and is the longest-serving Republican senator in history, has been making preparations in case he runs. Working with veteran GOP fundraiser Heather Larrison, he had amassed nearly $5 million in his campaign account through the end of September.
Yet there is widespread uncertainty about what Hatch will do. Romney and Hatch have not spoken for several months, according to one person close to the senator.
Romney’s supporters in the state are mobilizing. This week, state Sen. Daniel Hemmert, who was an alternate delegate at the 2012 Republican National Convention, launched a draft-Romney campaign which includes a website, recruitromney.com.
“We wanted to start a grass-roots effort to show Romney that people in Utah — not D.C. — want him to run,” Hemmert said.
If Hatch steps aside and Romney jumps in, most believe the former governor would be the odds-on favorite. Jason Perry, a former chief of staff to Herbert who oversees the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that people in the state feel a connection with Romney, in part, because of his work turning around the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
“I don’t think anybody would beat Mitt Romney if he decided to do it,” said former Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Boyd Matheson, a former chief of staff to Lee and the Sutherland Institute’s president, has also expressed interest in running. But he would enter a race against the better-known Romney almost certainly as the underdog. Romney and Matheson exchanged pleasantries at the gala on Friday night.
When he took the stage that evening, Kristol inadvertently referred to Romney as “senator,” drawing laughter from the audience.
“Oops,” Kristol said to more laughter. “That was just a slip-up.”