By Lindsay Vickers
BU News Service
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Massachusetts’ Gov. Mitt Romney has left Massachusetts politics behind to run for Orrin Hatch’s Utah senate seat, and Utahns appear to be embracing him as a candidate for senator over his native Utahn opponent.
A recent poll conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, a nonpartisan institute focused on teaching practical politics and encouraging civic engagement, showed that Romney had a 36-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, said Jason Perry, Director of the Hinckley Institute.
Perry explained that the poll also revealed that many Utah voters “are motivated to turnout on election day because of [Romney’s] candidacy.”
Romney’s popularity among Utahns has a few possible roots.
“[His] connections to Utah have … to do with his religious affiliation and his massive success leading the Olympics in Utah, … something a lot of people still remember fondly after the initial scandals created problems,” wrote Jeremy Pope, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, in an email.
The majority of Utahns, approximately 60 percent, identify as Mormon, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2013, giving Romney a huge potential voter base.
Romney also appeals to individuals who vote strictly along Republican party lines. Active and inactive Republican voters make up nearly 47 percent of the state’s registered voting population, as opposed to Democrats, who make up just over 12 percent, according to current voter registration data from the Utah Lieutenant Governor Elections Branch.
In spite of the Republican majority, President Trump won Utah with a relatively narrow margin, just 17.9 percent over Hillary Clinton. “Utahns are still split on their opinion of Trump,” Perry said.
Pope shared a similar description of Utahns’ opinion of Trump, and consequently Romney’s popularity. Younger Utahns, in particular, dislike Trump, he said; Romney, as a fairly moderate Republican, appeals to that group.
In the past, Romney’s name on the ballot has elicited a great response from Utahns.
“Voters in turned out in droves to vote for him when he ran for president both times,” Perry said.
Wilson, Romney’s opponent, has reservations.
“We are a red state and he is a well-known Republican, but what I hear on doorsteps is ‘why is he doing this,’ ‘is this the best role,’” she said. “I thank him for his service here, but I think Utah is at a critical time in its history.”
Utah is experiencing a boom, especially in technology, Wilson said. Companies like Adobe and Instructure, as well as Goldman Sachs, all have locations in Utah.
Wilson believes that she brings something that is unique to the table.
“I am at an age where I can bridge to the next generation, and I have a deep understanding of creativity,” she said.
Romney for Utah, the candidate’s campaign team, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Utah has seen a record-breaking number of people registering to vote this fall said Sherrie Swensen, the Salt Lake County clerk.
As of October 25, the office had already received back 138,000 mail ballots out of 514,000 sent out, she said. During the presidential election in 2016, the office received a grand total of 83,000 completed ballots of the 510,000 mailed out.
Swensen is reluctant to attribute the surge in participation to the senatorial race. She thinks it may be related to Proposition 2, a ballot question in Utah that would allow for the use of medical cannabis.
Regardless of the underlying reason for high voter registration and turnout thus far, Romney appears to have a strong lead in the race.
“Romney is one of the most well-liked politicians in our state,” Perry said. “He has the much-needed elder-statesman quality of bringing together bright minds regardless of political affiliation to tackle tough issues. Utahns like that approach and they feel connected to him.”