Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) decision to not seek reelection is setting off a scramble among Utah Republicans to fill his seat in 2024.
A moderate Republican and an outspoken critic of former President Trump, Romney announced on Wednesday that he’ll retire when his first term in the upper chamber ends in 2025, calling for a “new generation of leaders.” His exit likely opens the door for other, more conservative contenders to flood into the contest.
Utah GOP Chairman Robert Axson told The Hill that roughly 30 people have expressed interest over the last few months in running for Romney’s seat. Of those, he estimated a dozen are “seriously considering right now.”
“This is going to be a blockbuster Republican primary election,” said Damon Cann, head of Utah State University’s department of political science. “No doubt about it. We don’t see a lot of open Senate seats in Utah.”
Romney is a political legend in Utah, and if he’d run for reelection, he would have started out as the favorite.
Yet his exit also may be a sign of the changing times in the state, the country and the Republican Party itself.
Romney is the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on impeachment charges twice, and has repeatedly been willing to stand up to the former president in the Senate.
Those votes made it highly likely he’d have faced GOP challengers, and his exit could lead to a more open race.
Cann said Romney’s decision will likely spur still more people to jump into the GOP race.
“Previously, I wouldn’t have predicted many more entrants into that race. Now I suspect we’re going to see a veritable landslide of candidates trying to run for the Republican nomination,” Cann said.
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs has already declared his candidacy, and thanked Romney for stepping aside on Wednesday.
In an interview with One America News, the mayor said he also anticipates “a lot of would-be challengers now popping up” to surge into the race in Romney’s absence.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson has launched an exploratory committee for the Senate post. In a statement on Romney’s decision not to seek re-election, Wilson teased “stay tuned.”
Wilson said it’s important “to elect a strong conservative fighter” to the U.S. Senate, and Staggs’s website advertises him as the “conservative fighter we need in D.C.”
Multiple other names are being floated as possible contenders for the Beehive State’s upper chamber seat — among them, current Utah Republican Reps. John Curtis and Blake Moore.
Curtis said on Wednesday it’s “encouraging to hear from friends urging me to run for Senate,” but was noncommittal about a possible bid.
“Be it in the House or Senate, there’s much to accomplish & I look forward to getting things done,” Curtis wrote.
Moore told Axios that he’s “not ruling anything out” but that he’s “not planning on anything.”
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz is seen by some as a possible candidate, as is Tim Ballard, the founder and former CEO of Operation Underground Railroad and the inspiration for the controversial film “Sound of Freedom.”
“I do hope Utah ultimately elects, a solid, proven, and tested conservative to deal with the biggest and most tumultuous issues facing our country and the State of Utah,” Chaffetz wrote after Romney’s announcement.
A Noble Predictive Insights poll of Utah Republican voters, conducted in July, found that “a race without Romney is wide open.”
In that hypothetical, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was the only possible contender to score double-digits, while more than half of Utah GOP voters said they were undecided.
Reyes has announced he won’t get in the Senate race and is running for reelection as attorney general, and teased that he’ll be backing someone else who could announce a bid in the coming days.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines, who has said establishment Republicans are planning to be more selective and active in recruiting candidates in 2024, said after Romney’s announcement that “we are going to nominate a candidate who will keep Utah red in 2024.”
A spokesperson for Utah Democrats, on the other hand, told The Hill that the race to replace Romney “is going to be a contest for Utah Republicans to out-MAGA one another.”
Whoever ultimately wins the post will join Lee, who beat out Republican-turned-independent candidate Evan McMullin to win reelection in last year’s midterms.
Unlike Romney, Lee voted against Trump’s impeachments and was endorsed by the former president last year.
“Yes, it’s a same-party pair, but about as far apart as you can get with a-same party pair with Mike Lee and Mitt Romney,” Cann said of Utah’s two sitting senators.
Gabi Finlayson, a founding partner at the Utah-based progressive consulting firm Elevate Strategies, said progressives in the state are sad to see Romney go, noting that “there’s not a lot of room for moderates in the GOP anymore.”
But Finlayson also thinks Utah will be one of the next states to flip blue, citing its young population and its fast growth in recent years.
Though she conceded the race isn’t likely to get close enough to be a real toss-up or pickup opportunity for Democrats, Finlayson predicted that whatever Democrat runs for Romney’s seat “will perform better than any Democrat that we’ve seen on a statewide level.”
No Democrat has filed yet for the Senate contest. Both upper chamber seats in Utah have been filled by Republicans for decades, with Romney’s last occupied by Sen. Orrin Hatch for more than 40 years.
“The Utah Senate race to replace Sen. Romney will be a case study in the future direction of the party,” said one Republican strategist. “The fact that Romney is retiring after one term in the Senate shows that the old guard of the Republican Party is prepared to step aside for new leadership.”