Mitt Romney is poised to launch his political comeback — but don’t expect him to talk much about his onetime nemesis, President Donald Trump.
The 2012 GOP nominee had planned to announce his campaign for Utah Senate with a Thursday web video, bringing to an end months of speculation about his intentions and instantly becoming the highest-profile Republican on the ballot this year. On late Wednesday, Romney postponed the rollout in light of the deadly school shooting in South Florida.
When he goes forward, Romney intends to carefully skirt questions about how he’ll deal with the president and what could be in store for his future, amid speculation that he’s already plotting a role in leadership or even another campaign for the White House.
Instead, Romney plans to keep it hyperlocal, presenting himself as someone who will tend to the state’s needs even though his election is essentially a foregone according to several people who’ve spoken to him in recent weeks. It’s an approach other big-name figures who’ve run for Senate have employed, such as Hillary Clinton and Al Franken: Don’t appear to be taking anything for granted or coasting on celebrity.
Think more meet-and-greets with voters, a largely Utah-based campaign team, fewer TV commercials, and less give-and-take with national reporters.
In short, the 2018 Romney Senate campaign will look nothing like his 2012 presidential bid.
“I think you’ll see him spending his time and building a dialogue with the people of Utah and earning their support,” said Spencer Zwick, a longtime top Romney adviser. “It doesn’t mean through a bunch of TV ads. I think people will be surprised, and it will be refreshing how accessible Mitt is to the people of Utah.”
To that end, Romney has tapped Kelsey Berg and MJ Henshaw, veterans of Utah politics who formerly worked for ex-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, to help run his campaign. He has hired a Salt Lake City-based pollster, Y2 Analytics. And he has assembled an informal kitchen cabinet of local advisers that includes former Utah Jazz basketball executive Greg Miller.
Romney, already known virtually universally, is shunning a high-octane campaign launch in favor of a web video and a Friday evening speech at a Utah County Lincoln Day Dinner, though it is unclear how the delay will affect his schedule. After that, Romney, who during his presidential bid was sometimes derided as aloof and out of touch, had planned to hit the road and meet individually with activists and voters. He has turned to allies like Chaffetz to help introduce him to local Republicans whose support he’ll need.
The blueprint, outlined by several Romney advisers for this story, underscores the challenge confronting the former GOP nominee. While he is unlikely to face serious opposition, Romney is trying to convince voters that he’s not simply using the seat as a steppingstone to something bigger.
Already, tensions are emerging. In a Wednesday interview, Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson accused Romney of carpetbagging and said he’d done little so far to reach out to people in the state. Anderson said he’d repeatedly tried to contact Romney, but that he hadn’t heard from him.
“This is not a personal attack, but I find it offensive and a little arrogant that he hasn’t reached out to the party chairman,” said Anderson, who first raised his complaints with The Salt Lake Tribune.
“I think a lot of Utahns see him as a carpetbagger,” added Anderson, noting that he’d like to see Romney face a primary opponent. “He doesn’t buy his groceries here, he hasn’t raised his kids here.”
Later in the evening, Anderson released a statement saying that Romney reached out to him on Wednesday and that Anderson offered him an apology for his remarks, which Romney accepted.
Who that primary rival would be remains an open question. Some Republicans point to state Auditor John Dougall, an outspoken fiscal conservative, as a possibility, though he has yet to commit to a bid.
Romney, a Michigan-born former Massachusetts governor who now resides in Holladay, Utah, is likely to respond to any accusations of carpetbagging by highlighting his deep connections to the state. He played a central role in rescuing the troubled 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games and is heavily involved in the Mormon Church.
Romney’s desire for a low-key campaign in part reflects his personal circumstances. Boyd Matheson, a Deseret News opinion editor who met with Romney about a month ago to discuss policy issues, said that while the 70-year-old former governor was eager to run, he wanted a lower-intensity campaign than the one he waged six years ago.
“He doesn’t want the big entourage; it’s just counter to where he is in his life,” said Matheson, who himself briefly considered a bid for the seat. “He doesn’t want all the trappings.”
In the short term, Romney must decide whether he’d rather qualify for the GOP primary ballot by going through an April state party convention, where he could face opposition from conservative activists, or by gathering 28,000 signatures. Utah’s primary is slated for June 26.
The biggest question, though, may be why Romney is eager to leave political retirement to join a dysfunctional Senate. Some of those who’ve spoken with the former governor say they remain uncertain why he wants to re-enter the political arena.
Zwick said Romney would use the web video to outline his reasons for running. He insisted they have nothing to do with his feelings toward Trump.
“In my opinion, Mitt Romney would be running for Senate if Donald Trump was president or if Hillary Clinton was president,” Zwick said. “His rationale for running for Senate doesn’t have anything do with who the president is.”
But it’s highly unlikely Romney will be able to avoid questions about his relationship with the president. During the 2016 campaign, Romney emerged as an outspoken Trump critic. The two later had a rapprochement when Trump considered Romney to be his secretary of state.
But tensions remain: The president repeatedly urged longtime Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to seek reelection in order to block Romney from running for the seat.
Those close to Romney predict that he’ll strike a balance. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who met with Romney before Hatch’s retirement and has been in touch with him since, said Romney wouldn’t be reflexively anti-Trump but wouldn’t be afraid to speak out against the president.
“I think you’ll hear him say ‘I’ll agree with the president when he’s right, and disagree with him when he’s wrong,’” said Flake, himself an outspoken Trump critic. “I know he’ll be an independent voice.”