The 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor said he’ll seek to succeed Orrin Hatch, a strong Trump supporter who decided not to run for an eighth term despite the president’s efforts to persuade him to stay.
“I am running for United States Senate to serve the people of Utah and bring Utah’s values to Washington,” said Romney, 70, on Twitter.
Romney called then-presidential candidate Trump “a phony, a fraud” in a speech in March 2016. He also called for Trump to apologize to the nation in August for his rhetoric following a violent white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville, Virginia. He said the president’s suggestion that both sides were to blame "caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn."
Still, Trump interviewed him as a candidate for secretary of state. Romney said in June 2017 that he would have accepted the job if he’d been offered it, and that he and the president weren’t as far apart on issues as he’d feared.
Romney enters the race as the early favorite thanks to his popularity in Utah, fundraising skills, name recognition, and months of campaigning and fundraising for other Republican candidates.
But Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson harshly criticized Romney in an interview published online Wednesday by the Salt Lake City Tribune. He accused Romney of "essentially doing what Hillary Clinton did in New York" by running in a state where he hadn’t spent much time.
One question is whether Romney will continue to be a strong anti-Trump voice in a state the president won by 18 percentage points in 2016, or follow the path of former vocal Trump critics like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who have now become allies.
Romney criticized Trump in January following reports that the president used a derogatory term to refer to African countries during a White House meeting on immigration.
"The poverty of an aspiring immigrant’s nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race," Romney tweeted on Jan. 15. "The sentiment attributed to POTUS is inconsistent w/ America’s history and antithetical to American values."
It’s not clear how Trump will respond to Romney’s candidacy. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Jan. 2 that she hadn’t talked with the president about potentially backing Romney, but that Trump “is very sad to see Senator Hatch leave.”
Romney may also be confronted by the pro-Trump, anti-establishment forces in the Republican Party that influenced decisions by GOP Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona to retire after this year, although a Corker spokesman said he may reconsider.
The conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks has already come out against Romney. "We will not be supporting Romney. We think that Utahans deserve a constitutional conservative to fill that seat," Jon Meadows, a spokesman for the organization, said in an emailed statement after Hatch announced his retirement.
Romney -- a graduate of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Harvard University’s law and business schools -- managed the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and moved to the state after the 2012 election. After Hatch’s retirement announcement, Romney changed his location on Twitter to Utah from Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003 to 2007.
Possible opponents for Romney include Democratic candidate and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson and independent Evan McMullin, who is considering a bid after winning 21.5 percent of the presidential vote in the state in 2016.