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In a hypothetical 2018 U.S. Senate contest, Mitt Romney runs much stronger than other Republican candidates against Democrat Jenny Wilson, according to a new poll commissioned by UtahPolicy.com and conducted by Dan Jones & Associates.

While that result might be expected, it isn’t just an academic matchup, because Utah Policy has learned that Romney is very likely to enter the race if Sen. Orrin Hatch decides to retire. According to sources close to Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a twice-presidential candidate is preparing to run if Hatch steps down.

The statewide poll was conducted Aug. 30 through Sept. 5, with 608 registered voter respondents. It has a possible error margin of plus/minus 3.97 percent.

If the election were held today, Romney would get 64 percent of the vote, while Wilson (the leading announced Democratic candidate) would get 26 percent. Ten percent were undecided. Democrat Mitchell Vice has also announced his intent to challenge for the Senate seat currently held by Hatch.

GOP 2nd District Congressman Chris Stewart runs ahead of Wilson 34-30 percent, with a relatively high 36 percent undecided.

Utah Valley University President Matt Holland, who has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, runs behind Wilson 23-30 percent. However, the undecided vote, at 47 percent, is very high -- likely reflecting Holland’s low visibility as a possible political candidate.

Incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch performs the worst against Wilson, with Wilson winning 45 percent of the hypothetical vote and Hatch getting 34 percent, with 21 percent undecided.

 

Romney and Stewart have both said they will not run if Hatch seeks re-election. People close to Hatch say he likely will not make a final decision until closer to the end of the year, probably in December. Hatch has previously indicated that he would like to see Romney run if he chooses not to. He has also been supportive of Stewart and Holland.

Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann says Hatch's reluctance to announce his future plans will not have much of an effect on Romney's ability to mount a campaign if Hatch decides to step down.

"Hatch could decide on the last day of the filing period not to file, and Romney would have the resources to step in and run," says Cann. "Few other people would be able to do that." 

A Romney candidacy would immediately attract national attention and, if he wins, he would instantly become a high-profile U.S. senator. Still, he would be only one of 100 senators and one of 535 members of Congress. That’s a much different environment than being a hard-charging CEO or governor. 

Romney supporters say his interest in the Senate reflects his deep-seated concern about what is happening in Washington and his interest in having a strong voice there to solve problems. Romney is 70 years old. Hatch is 83 years old

Cann says if Romney decides to get in the race, it would pretty much be game over for any other candidate.

"There's no one on the planet who could beat Mitt Romney in a Senate race in Utah," quipped Cann. "Romney is widely admired and appreciated in the state of Utah. If Sen. Hatch doesn't run, there will be a collective sigh of relief from many Utahns. If Mitt Romney does run, there will be cheers from the gallery and enthusiasm from every corner of the state."

But, Cann thinks Romney would draw some opposition from within the Republican Party, but it would be minimal.

"Romney has been very public and very high profile expressing his disappointment with President Donald Trump and what he sees as Trump's shortcomings. There will be some core Trump supporters who would be unhappy to see Romney run for that reason," says Cann. "You could also see a Chris Herrod-type, classic right wing Republican who would worry that Romney was not sufficiently conservative enough to represent Utah in the Senate. I have a hard time imagining that either set of voices would get traction."

Hatch’s current activities point toward him seeking re-election. He has been holding fundraisers and sending out campaign mailers. He is very active on multiple issues, has a massive communications infrastructure, and he will be in the middle of the tax reform debate as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

By waiting until the end of the year to make a decision, Hatch is making it very difficult for prospective candidates who are not wealthy or famous to have enough time to mount an effective 2018 campaign. 

But, Cann says there's a flashing red danger sign for Hatch in these poll results if he decides to run for an eighth term.

"We've seen survey after survey over the last year that suggests that Utahns would encourage Sen. Hatch to retire, would prefer that he retire. This survey, with the head to head, gets a little bit more specific on exactly what people's feelings are on the matter. It shows a significant number of people have already made up their mind that they will not vote for Sen. Hatch again, and would even defect from their party identification to see Sen. Hatch not in the Senate any longer."

If Romney does ultimately decide to run, he will get significant support from everywhere. Even 1/4th of Democrats would vote for Romney over Wilson according to the survey. 

  • 84% of Republicans say they would pick Romney, while just 7% say they would vote for Wilson.

  • 28% of Utah Democrats would choose Romney, while 65% in that group would cast a ballot for Wilson.

  • 61% of independent voters say they favor Romney. 29% say Wilson would get their vote.

For a Democrat to have a shot at winning a statewide race in Utah, they need to keep Democratic voters in the fold while attracting support from a significant number of independents. They also need to pull quite a few Republican voters from the "R" column. Wilson would be facing an almost insurmountable uphill climb if she were to face off against Romney.

While Wilson seemingly has a slight lead over Hatch at this point, her victory is anything but assured as her support in some key groups is still soft.

  • 51% of Republicans would vote for Hatch over Wilson, while 21% would pick the Democrat. 28% of GOP voters would be undecided in that hypothetical race.

  • 84% of Democrats would vote for Wilson.

  • 53% of independents like Wilson over Hatch, while 28% would vote for the GOP candidate. 18% would be undecided.

If Romney jumps into the race, why would he have any interest in becoming the junior senator from Utah, behind Sen. Mike Lee in seniority?

"I think Romney genuinely enjoys being in politics," said Cann. "Romney would be cognizant of the important place of seniority in the workings of the Senate; I suspect he would be positioned to be somewhat more influential than the typical junior Senator."

Additionally, Romney would have a platform to be a national voice for Utah who would bring instant credibility to the job.

"He has as good of a potential as anyone to be a counter voice from within the Republican party to some of the positions taken by the Trump administration. Being elected to the Senate would only improve his ability to influence the future of the Republican party," added Cann.