SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mitt Romney looks like a shoo-in for a U.S. Senate seat from Utah after and winning a landslide primary victory and toning down his criticism of Donald Trump, but first he’ll face a Democratic opponent with a distinctly different political outlook.
Jenny Wilson holds an elected office in the state’s biggest county, has a political pedigree as the daughter of a former mayor, and she worked with Romney at the 2002 Olympics.
But in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 4 to 1 and Romney is a hugely popular figure, she’ll have an uphill climb in the race to replace long-serving Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Still, the Salt Lake County councilwoman is campaigning hard.
“We haven’t had as strong a voice running for the U.S. Senate as mine for decades,” she said Wednesday. In questioning Romney’s shifting tone on Trump, she said, “I think the voters have to ask, ‘Which Mitt Romney are they getting?‘”
Romney, for his part, has said he is a straight shooter who will continue to call out “significant” things Trump does that are racist, sexist or anti-immigrant. But Romney has significantly scaled back his rhetoric since blasting Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Romney predicted Trump will be re-elected in 2020, and accepted an endorsement from the president. Trump, meanwhile, congratulated his onetime critic in a tweet Tuesday.
Romney, whose status as the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party gave him celebrity-like status in Utah, says his high political profile would help the state continue to punch above its weight in Washington D.C.
As Romney turns from the GOP primary to the general election, he’ll get a close look from voters like Polly Schnaper of blue-leaning Salt Lake City. The 68-year-old retiree from Utah’s court system usually votes Democratic, but she’s still making up her mind on the Senate race. She liked Romney’s critique of the president, but worries that “lately I feel like he’s been waffling.”
Wilson, 52, will be the underdog in deep-red Utah, which has not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since Hatch defeated Sen. Frank Moss in 1976. She describes herself as socially progressive on issues like LGBT and abortion rights, but fiscally more conservative on issues like balancing the budget, something she sees as much harder under the GOP-backed federal tax overhaul.
Wilson said she’s ready to campaign against Romney, who she worked under as she helped coordinate thousands of volunteers at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The job helped establish Romney’s ties to Utah, but Wilson, the daughter of former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, said she knows local issues better than Romney. He moved to Utah after his failed 2012 presidential run.
“I think now that we’re head-to-head, the conversation is going to change,” she said. “I see the old boys club of the Senate doesn’t work anymore.”