The moment Utah Senator Orrin Hatch announced he would not seek reelection this year, the political world buzzed around one question: Would former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney run for the job?
Notably, few asked another question: Would Romney win?
Because, honestly, he would. Though there has not yet been major polling on a Romney candidacy, it’s widely believed that his chances of winning a Utah Senate race this fall are all but given. In Utah, there are four registered Republican voters for every Democrat, and Romney has long been something of a favorite son.
That presents an ideal opportunity for Romney to reenter national politics. Remember that so far Romney is 1 for 4 in winning elections. He won a single term to be Massachusetts governor, after losing a race for US Senate against Ted Kennedy and before losing two races for president.
Campaigning for Hatch’s seat would be the easiest election he has ever run. Let’s take a look at why:
1. Democrats don’t have a chance. Utah is one of the most Republican states in the country. Yes, Democrats have made some impressive gains in the state over the last decade, particularly in Salt Lake County. And, yes, the recent Democratic Senate win in deeply Republican Alabama suggests there is room for Democrats to pick off seats, even in the most red of states.
But this situation is different. There isn’t a Democrat in Utah who has the stature to take on someone as popular as Romney, and there is little incentive for Democrats nationally to put money into this contest instead of another, more competitive race. This is a state where Republicans currently hold all five statewide positions, super majorities in the State House, both US Senate seats, and all four US House seats. Absent a viable candidate of their own, Democrats might actually want Romney in the Senate if they think he’ll give President Trump a few headaches.
2. Romney has long been popular in Utah: How popular? A Utah Policy poll released in December put Romney’s approval rating in the state at 69 percent. This is significantly higher than Trump’s standing in the state (45 percent) and even that of Hatch (48 percent), who has been the state’s senator for four decades.
Romney and his family have deep ties to the state. He went to college there and later returned to save the 2002 Winter Olympics when it was mired in scandal — a triumph that Utah voters have long since cheered. When he ran for president in 2012, Romney’s margin of victory was strongest in Utah. True, he served as governor of Massachusetts, but since the 2012 race, he has cut ties with the state and moved his permanent residence to Utah. And let’s not overlook his deep allegiance to the Mormon faith, which is rooted in Utah, with Mormon voters making up a broad percentage of the electorate. Romney is the most successful Mormon politician in history.
3. His campaign fundamentals are strong: Even if Romney weren’t so darn popular in the state already, he would still be a formidable candidate. He has significant national name recognition and could self-fund a campaign or use his national fund-raising base, which to this day remains unmatched in Republican politics. Oh, and he is more than a little tested in the whole election thing and has proven himself a disciplined candidate.
4. There’s little chance a GOP primary could get in his way: Should Romney enter the race, at least a few national voices will push the idea that he could face a significant primary challenge from a more conservative candidate. Primary challenges from hard-core conservatives have worked several times since the Tea Party moment in 2010, including in Utah that year for a Senate contest.
But Utah, while deeply red, is not actually deeply conservative. And since then, state officials have changed the rules on how primary contests work, so as to help more establishment Republicans. The new Utah Republican Party chair is a self-described moderate who unseated an incumbent and close chum of Trump. Then there is the question of who precisely would challenge Romney in a primary. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was trying to talk Congressman Chris Stewart into the race, but Stewart reportedly isn’t interested.
If there’s one comment that most encapsulates Romney’s popularity in the state, it’s this: On Wednesday, Utah’s Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, a rising star in the state, tweeted that his love for Romney was so strong, “I would vote for Mitt if I ran against Mitt.”James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp