Flashing his trademark smile and touting a patched-up relationship with the president, Mitt Romney rolled through the Republican primary in his adopted Utah on Tuesday and took another step in his political comeback that would have him assume the Senate seat of retiring Orrin Hatch.
President Donald Trump congratulated Romney on the landslide victory, tweeting that “a great and loving family will be coming to D.C.”
Romney celebrated the win at sunset in front of picturesque mountains, surrounded by his wife, Ann, and some of their children and grandchildren as supporters munched hot dogs and snow cones.
The former presidential candidate promised to “make sure that the example I set as a leader is consistent with the values of our state and the great founding values of the United States of America” in Washington.
Romney has said he’ll speak out if the president says or does anything “significant” that is racist, sexist or anti-immigrant. But his tone has changed markedly since the 2016 presidential campaign, when he blasted Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud.”
This year, Romney predicted Trump will be re-elected and accepted the president’s endorsement in the Senate race.
Romney defeated GOP state lawmaker Mike Kennedy, who had forced him into a primary by winning the vote of a hard right-leaning group of core GOP party members at the state convention in April. Neither received 60 percent of delegates’ votes to secure the nomination outright.
During the campaign, Kennedy tried to paint his political-heavyweight opponent as an out-of-towner who couldn’t get along with Trump, but those attacks didn’t make much headway.
Kennedy said Tuesday he’s happy to back Romney as he goes up against Democrat Jenny Wilson in the general election.
Wilson promised a hard race Tuesday, saying in a statement that the country needs “a new generation of leaders” and criticizing him on immigration and tax policies.
Wilson will be the underdog in deep-red Utah, which has not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for decades.
Romney moved to Utah after his failed 2012 presidential run. He’s known there for turning around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after a bribery scandal and later becoming the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.
The well of goodwill also extends to voters who support the president.
Bruce Rigby, 84, said he admires Romney for speaking his mind, but he’s also glad he has since come around to largely supporting the president.
“It’s like in a family. One person may not like the decision that someone makes, but it all comes out in the wash,” said Rigby, a retired manager concrete and propane companies.
There are lingering questions for people like Emery Cook, a 34-year-old business owner who said he hopes Romney is a “true conservative” on issues like opposing abortion and strengthening border security.
“I hope he stands up to Trump when he needs to stand up to Trump, and I like that about Mitt,” he said.
In other noteworthy Utah races, U.S. Rep. John Curtis took a major step toward winning his first full term in Congress when he knocked out a hard-right opponent who’d aligned himself closely with Trump.
The win over former state lawmaker Chris Herrod ended a rematch between the two men who also sparred months ago in the special election to finish Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s term representing the 3rd Congressional District.
“This is one of the most conservative districts in the country, and I think it’s validation tonight that we’re well-aligned with them,” Curtis said.
In the 1st Congressional District, the Democratic race between businessman Kurt Weiland and social worker Lee Castillo was too close to call. They’re competing to face eight-term Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop.
Salt Lake City Democrat Derek Kitchen, who rose to prominence when he and his partner were part of a lawsuit that overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage, was locked in a Democratic primary for the state Legislature with physician Jennifer Plumb.