If Mitt Romney does decide to run for Utah's open U.S. Senate seat this year, he will likely use the signature gathering route to get on the ballot. But Utah GOP Chair Rob Anderson hopes Romney also decides to come to the convention.
"I think it's a foregone conclusion that he will gather signatures," says Anderson. "But I'd love to have him show up at the convention, too. It would be a shame for him not to."
Anderson says he has reached out to Romney's camp to try and encourage him to take the caucus route.
"If he shows up, it would add to the 'wow' factor. If he doesn't, then he's turning votes away."
On the other hand, former State Senator Steve Urquhart says Romney would be crazy to go through the caucus/convention system, because the risks are plenty with very little reward.
"The goal for Romney is to avoid controversy," says Urquhart. "If he goes to the convention, his opponents will be aiming to take shots at him, and some of them might land."
Urquhart bluntly says Romney should follow the straightest path to November.
"His campaign should be, 'Hi, I'm Mitt Romney,' and not much else," he says.
Romney still hasn't announced whether he's running in 2018 or not, although all indications are he's in. But, the neighborhood caucus meetings are a little more than two months away. It's doubtful that Romney's team would have enough time to recruit candidates to run for delegates spots at those neighborhood meetings. The longer he waits to announce, the less time he'll have.
In 2012, Sen. Orrin Hatch was facing a stiff challenge for the GOP nomination from Dan Liljenquist. Hatch's team spent nearly $5 million to recruit delegates who would support him at the state convention. The effort started more than a year before those meetings, and Hatch was still forced into a primary.
Granted, the caucus/convention route is not necessary now that candidates can petition for a spot on the ballot. It could be bad optics for Romney not to appear at the convention, a very public break with the party he would easily become the most high-profile member of.
The risk for Romney at the convention is losing the delegate vote to another candidate. Delegates tend to be more to the right, politically, than rank and file Republican voters. It's possible they could back a more conservative candidate like Rep. Dan McCay, who is rumored to be readying a Senate run. It takes time to woo delegates, a much easier task if they're already in your corner.
A loss at convention would be embarrassing for Romney, but it wouldn't prove fatal to his campaign. He would likely easily defeat any and all opponents in a GOP primary.
A Romney loss at the convention would be more shameful for the Utah GOP, further highlighting how far outside the mainstream Republican delegates really are. In 2016 delegates gave more votes to Jonathan Johnson, who handily lost the primary to Gov. Gary Herbert. In 2017, delegates overwhelmingly backed Chris Herrod in the CD3 special election. Herrod lost to John Curtis by 9 points. Another loss by the "delegate choice" in a primary to a signature-gathering candidate will further damage the cachet of the convention system, and reinforce the idea that the delegates are out of touch with mainstream Republican voters.
Romney could do a lot of good for the party if he takes the caucuses seriously, while still gathering signatures. He could attract more mainstream delegates to the caucus meetings, which would go a long way toward moderating the right-wing influence in the party.
"Mitt's potential campaign means a lot for the moderate Republicans in our party," says Anderson. "If he can encourage those people to attend the caucuses, and get elected as delegates, that would be great. It's important for their voices to be heard."