SALT LAKE CITY — A few days after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah announced that he would conclude his tenure after serving 42 years in office, the state’s governor, Gary Herbert, was growing anxious about whether Mitt Romney would run for the seat.
“Let’s not be coy about this,” Herbert said he told a close Romney friend and prominent business leader, Kem Gardner. “If he’s going to run, let’s go. If not, we need to find somebody else to run, and there’s people that have been trying to queue up for the opportunity.”
Last Saturday, Gardner called the governor and read from a text that Romney had offered: “I’m running.”
The political resurrection of Romney appears unstoppable in a state where he was not raised and where he has not lived for most of his adult life. Romney, a Michigan-reared former Massachusetts governor, who was successfully treated for prostate cancer last summer, is beloved here as the savior of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and Mormon royalty.
But if Romney’s Senate candidacy is inevitable, how exactly he would run and serve is less clear.
His yet-to-be-declared candidacy is already highlighting the enduring fractures over President Donald Trump in this heavily Mormon state, where voters have long been uneasy with Trump’s conduct. At issue is whether Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, should be an overt check on the president, and even use a Senate platform to mount his own White House comeback, or act as an ally and retain access to Trump the way Hatch has done.
Trump won Utah but garnered only 45 percent of the vote, the lowest of any Republican nominee for nearly a quarter-century. The state’s largely conservative voters found his coarse language, treatment of women and contempt for many immigrants and refugees to be anathema to a faith centered on rectitude and forged by exile. About 27 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, and 21 percent voted for Evan McMullin, a Mormon political neophyte who ran as a conservative counter to Trump.
Utahns saw Trump as a far cry from his predecessor from four years earlier.
Strolling between buildings at the state Capitol complex, the imposing Wasatch Range looming in nearly every direction, Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox sought to explain why Romney is so formidable that nearly every ambitious major Republican, including himself, is standing down.
“We have a little bit of an inferiority complex in the state of Utah,” Cox said. “I think it has to do with how we got here. We got kicked out of the country, basically. There was an extermination order. And so we came out here with nothing.”
Gesturing to the elegant state Capitol and booming city at the foot of the mountains, he said, “This was a barren place, and we turned it into this.”
The Romney ancestors were part of the story, back to 1837, when a carpenter named Miles Archibald Romney heard a missionary tell the story of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet.
And because Utah leaders are determined to put on the best face for their state and their church, Romney’s image is far more important than the particulars of his residency. “All-American family, all-American business acumen, elected governor, ran for president in a respectful way,” as Cox put it.
A sixth-generation Utahn who will say only that he did not vote for Trump or Clinton, Cox all but encouraged Romney to be a voice of opposition when needed.
“I think if he wants to be a check, it won’t hurt him here like it has others,” he said, noting the Republican lawmakers who have been politically damaged for their criticism of Trump, such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, both of whom are retiring. “He could do it from Day 1 and he’d be fine.”
Some Republicans here see Romney’s ascent to the Senate as only the first step. Herbert said he “can accelerate” and become Senate Republican leader. Daniel Hemmert, a state senator who last year began a Draft Romney effort, went further, suggesting that if Trump is damaged or does not run again in 2020, the party should turn to the freshman senator from Utah.
Romney “has to be at the top of that list,” Hemmert said.
That is precisely why Trump aggressively wooed Hatch to run for an eighth term, even flying the 83-year-old senator out to Salt Lake City last month, hoping to block Romney’s return.
Trump and Romney ferociously attacked each other in 2016. In a blistering speech in Salt Lake, Romney called his successor “a phony, a fraud.”
Returning fire, Trump deemed Romney “a choker” who “walks like a penguin.”
Just how far Romney is willing to go to confront Trump, though, is very much in question. After his Salt Lake speech, Romney embraced Trump when it appeared he was in the running for secretary of state, even submitting to a frog leg dinner with Trump at Jean-Georges in Manhattan.
But after last summer’s violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, Romney demanded that the president apologize for his equivocal response, saying that “what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”
Trump telephoned Romney in recent days, and they had a pleasant conversation, according to two White House officials, but, they added, the president did not explicitly offer his support.
Many Republican leaders here are hopeful that the former antagonists can find common ground.
“I think there is a willingness on both sides to say, ‘Look, we may disagree on stuff, we may have problems from our past, but what we ought to be looking toward is our future,’” Herbert said.
Yet to Trump’s most vocal supporters — and they exist here as in any state — simply trying to get along is insufficient. The state House speaker, Gregory Hughes, a Pittsburgh transplant, like Hatch, who practices what he calls “brutal honesty,” said bluntly, “I hope and actually I expect Governor Romney to be an ally of the president and the policies he’s pursuing.”
Hughes boasted of his early support for Trump and noted that he had gotten to know the president’s eldest son. He also praised Romney: “We joke maybe only Jesus can beat him.”
But Hughes came away stunned from a private meeting late last year with Romney, who seemed unaware that the protests by National Football League players during the national anthem had contributed to the league’s woes with fans, according to a Republican to whom Hughes mentioned the conversation. It was, to the speaker, an indication that Romney remains somewhat insulated by his wealth.
The contrasting expectations for how Utah Republicans want Romney to handle Trump reveals not only the fault lines of the party as it eyes the 2020 race for governor (Cox and Hughes are both considering campaigns for the open-seat race) but also the nuances within the church over how differently Mormons view the president.
And while Romney is not expected to face a competitive race in the general election, the demographics in this state are changing as non-Mormon transplants move in and some natives drift from the faith of their families.
Jenny Wilson, whose father once ran against Hatch, reflects this shift. A member of the Salt Lake County Council, Wilson is the likely Democratic nominee in the Senate race. She was “baptized Mormon,” as she put it, but is no longer active in the church.
The overwhelmingly white, Republican and male power structure of the state is outdated, she argued.
“My interest in running for office is about offering a different voice,” she said, noting that there were no Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation.
In the slope-side lobby of the St. Regis resort in Deer Valley last weekend, a mix of Utah and Washington contributors gathered for a ski fundraiser for Hatch, the proceeds of which may eventually find their way to a political institute he plans to build.
Not far from the hot-chocolate bar, Hatch, clad in a patterned ski sweater, helped hand out Olympic-medal-style awards to participants.
Most everyone in attendance expected Romney to run. And Gordon Smith, a former moderate Republican senator from Oregon who is from a prominent Mormon family, crowed a little over how the only apparent impediment had been swept away: the defenestration of Stephen Bannon, who had harshly criticized Romney.
“I always figured if he ran, Bannon would try to beat him,” Smith said, before adding with evident relish, “Well, that’s gone.”