Romney Failed to Win at Utah Convention, but Few Believe He’s Doomed

Romney Failed to Win at Utah Convention

Mitt Romney, running for an open United States Senate seat from Utah, spoke to delegates at the state Republican convention on Saturday. He narrowly lost a vote to a little-known state lawmaker but is still expected to win the June primary.

LEHI, Utah — Mitt Romney wound his way through this city’s tulip festival on Monday, shaking hands, hugging toddlers and shrugging off his failure to sew up the nomination for an open Senate seat at this state’s Republican Party convention last weekend.

“I don’t think it was any particular surprise for us,” he said. “We’re going to have a primary, and we’re ready for it.”

On Saturday, after a raucous day of voting at the Utah Republican convention, delegates delivered 49 percent of their votes to Mr. Romney, and 51 percent to a little-known state legislator named Mike Kennedy, who likened himself to the stone of the shepherd boy David, “ready to be flung at the foes of liberty.”

The vote pushed the two into a June 26 primary. And it led to speculation that Mr. Romney’s bid for the seat of Orrin G. Hatch, who is retiring, would not be as easy as expected — and that perhaps his once biting criticism of Donald J. Trump had become a political liability.

But longtime observers of Utah politics say that Mr. Romney’s failure to secure the nomination happened not because he has rebuffed the president, but because the convention’s hard-right delegates were angry that Mr. Romney had tried to circumvent them with a second route to the nomination: signature gathering.

“It would be a mistake to say that what happened in the convention was about Donald Trump,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “This was about other factors,” he went on. “Delegates do not like power being taken away from them.”

Mr. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, who moved to Utah after serving as governor of Massachusetts, remains popular among this state’s heavily Mormon Republican electorate, and he is expected to cruise to victory in the primary and general elections. (Mr. Romney is also Mormon.)

But he encountered two daunting hurdles on Saturday: the deeply conservative nature of delegates who attend Utah Republican conventions and, because of a change in the rules governing the nominating process, a fear among these activists that they are losing their grip on the state party.

There is a long history of the G.O.P. conventions favoring more hard-line candidates, but their preference has of late mattered less to primary voters. In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert failed to win a majority of convention delegates but went on to win renomination in the primary by a 44-point margin. And in a special House race last year, Representative John R. Curtis finished fourth at the convention and still won the primary and general elections.

These Republicans were not stymied by the conventions because of a controversial 2014 state law allowing candidates to earn a position on the primary ballot by gathering signatures from voters. Party activists resent this change, seeing it as an attempt to dilute their influence, and it has emerged as a litmus test question in their universe for Republican candidates, even as much as any policy issue.

Some of Mr. Romney’s advisers knew that his well-documented history of ideological swerving and recently declared residency in the state would not be received well in a room of 3,627 delegates who are more conservative than their would-be standard-bearer and are now on edge about their relevance.

But much like in the lead-up to Mr. Romney’s presidential bid in 2012, when some of his associates urged him to stay away from the hard-right Iowa caucuses, he had little interest in circumventing the party process. Not wanting to be seen as bigfooting the state party, he gathered signatures to appear on the primary ballot but also submitted to Utah’s caucus-convention system, which includes a series of local delegate-selection meetings leading up to the state convention.

State Representative Mike Kennedy speaking at the Utah State Capitol last week.

Mr. Kennedy is a three-time state legislator and family doctor whose convention speech focused on slashing the national debt, supporting Mr. Trump’s immigration policies and repealing Obamacare. In an email, he pledged support for the president and vowed to continue campaigning, despite Mr. Romney’s significant financial advantage.

But few in the state expect Mr. Kennedy to pose much of a threat. On Monday, as Mr. Romney toured the tulip festival, parents laden with strollers and toddlers gave him the celebrity treatment.

None had known that Mr. Romney would be stopping by.

“Oh my god,” said one woman, whipping out her cellphone, “it’s Mitt Romney.”

Daniel Roberts, 65, a retired schoolteacher, tapped the candidate on the shoulder and asked to shake the hand of the “next president.”

“Mitt Romney has a huge reputation that follows him,” Mr. Roberts said. “I really have no idea what the other guy’s stances are — and I’m not really interested.”

Still, the convention rejection of Mr. Romney was embarrassing given his stature in the state.

The man who just a few years ago was debating President Barack Obama before millions of viewers took the stage on Saturday with 11 other candidates — including an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who had legally changed his name to that of the former president but, reading from parchment-type paper, still referred to Mr. Lincoln in the third person.

And after putting 9,250 miles on his pickup truck driving to caucus gatherings in living rooms and school cafeterias around the state, Mr. Romney still lost.

But Utah Republican leaders said Mr. Romney was wise to risk the momentary failure of losing the convention so as not to be seen as too good for the sort of activists who typically do the unglamorous work of volunteering each campaign.

“If there was going to be a backfire for Mitt, that would have happened if he had taken the 30,000-foot approach and skipped the convention,” said Gregory Hughes, Utah’s state house Speaker. “But by working to earn the support of the delegates he made it closer than I thought it would be.”

Mr. Hughes said Mr. Romney’s two most glaring weaknesses were fused in the minds of many delegates.

“This is a guy from Massachusetts, where he had very different political leanings,” he said.

Convention delegates who backed Mr. Kennedy echoed that assessment.

“He’s not been in the state forever and he’s been wishy-washy, flip-flopped on issues over the years,” said Eugene Christensen, a 55-year-old delegate from Bear River City.

But in a demonstration of why Mr. Romney faces little threat in the primary, Mr. Christensen quickly added that while he is disposed toward Mr. Kennedy, he is still in “wait-and-see mode” and believes that the former Massachusetts governor would do “a good job” as the state’s newest senator.

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