SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney has won the Republican primary for a Utah Senate seat, setting him on the path to re-start his political career with a Senate seat left open by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Romney secured the nomination Tuesday against state lawmaker Mike Kennedy after fending off attacks on his onetime criticism of President Donald Trump.
The former presidential candidate was the heavy favorite to win the race in Utah, where he moved after his failed 2012 presidential run and is a beloved adopted son.
Romney blasted Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, though the two men have largely buried the hatchet, and Romney has accepted the president’s endorsement.
He now faces Democratic Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, though GOP candidates have a big upper hand in the conservative state.
Romney moved to Utah after his failed 2012 presidential run. He’s known 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.
It was there that he delivered a speech during the 2016 election calling then-candidate Trump a “phony” and a “fraud.” His tone has changed considerably since then, and earlier this month he predicted that Trump would “solidly” win re-election in 2020.
Romney was forced into a primary after a narrow loss to Kennedy in front of a right-leaning group of core party members at the state GOP convention in April. The two were forced into a runoff primary since neither won 60 percent of delegates’ votes to secure the nomination outright.
Kennedy positioned himself as the homegrown, conservative candidate. Romney, meanwhile, argued that his national clout would give Utah a leg up.
Romney raised nearly $2 million for his campaign over the past two months, while Kennedy took in $152,000.
Another marquee race Tuesday in Utah has U.S. Rep. John Curtis looking to take a major step toward winning his first full term in Congress in the 3rd Congressional District, stretching from Salt Lake City suburbs to the state’s southeast corner.
He won a special election last year to finish Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s term and is now facing a rematch against former state lawmaker Chris Herrod.
The hard-right leaning Herrod is known for his strict stance on immigration and has strongly aligned himself with Trump.
Curtis, meanwhile, is considered more moderate and has spoken against broad-based tariffs and bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons.
The winner of both GOP primaries will be favorites to win in November in the overwhelmingly Republican state.
On the Democratic side, businessman Kurt Weiland and social worker Lee Castillo were competing to face eight-term U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican in the 1st Congressional District in northern Utah.
Other noteworthy candidates competing in races on Tuesday include Democrat Derek Kitchen, a Salt Lake City councilman running for the state Legislature. He rose to prominence when he and his partner were part of a lawsuit that overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage.
He’s facing physician Jennifer Plumb, a doctor who vows to work to reduce opioid overdoses, in the primary to replace outspoken Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis.
GOP voters were also deciding the next sheriff of Utah County. Pleasant Grove Police Chief Mike Smith was vying in the Republican primary against U.S. Marshal Jim Phelps to replace Jim Tracy, who is retiring as the sheriff of Utah’s second-largest county.
There are no candidates on the Democratic side, so Tuesday’s winner will be unopposed in November.
State director of elections Justin Lee said that 301,000 ballots had been cast by mail or through early voting. It’s unclear how many voters are eligible to vote in the primary because there aren’t races in every party in every part of the state.
Associated Press writers Julian Hattem and Rick Bowmer in Salt Lake City and Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.