Race to replace Sen. Mitt Romney heats up as Republican Utah House speaker formally enters race

DRAPER, Utah (AP) — Promising to fight against liberal activism in Washington if elected, Republican Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson formally announced Wednesday night that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Mitt Romney, who recently announced he won’t run for reelection.

Wilson repeatedly criticized President Joe Biden to the cheers of his supporters at a rally in a Salt Lake City suburb, blaming the Democratic administration for inflation, high gas prices and immigration problems at the U.S.-Mexico border. He vowed to lower taxes, help police enforce laws and protect gun rights. He lamented how “unelected experts and ”elitist experts” tried to impose lockdowns and vaccine mandates instead of letting people make their own decisions.

“Joe Biden and radical leftists as well as ‘go along to get along’ Republicans are taking us down dead end streets . . . where schools are teaching our kids what to think, not how to think,” said Wilson, who was first elected to Utah’s House in 2010 and has been speaker for three terms.

The announcement had been expected for months from Wilson, 54, who launched an exploratory committee even before Romney’s announcement and recently said he will resign from his speaker job and the state House on Nov. 15.

He became the first major GOP candidate to enter what is expected to be a crowded field. U.S. Rep. John Curtis is also seriously considering a run.

Romney announced earlier this month that he won’t seek a second term, saying younger people needed to step forward. In so doing, he threw open a wider door for those seeking to enter the race and led to speculation about whether Utah voters will choose a politically moderate successor similar to him or a farther-right figure such as Utah’s other U.S. senator, Mike Lee, a Donald Trump supporter.

Wilson would likely fall somewhere between Romney and Lee in that regard, said Damon Cann, head of Utah State University’s political science department.

“I think most people are expecting Brad Wilson would govern somewhat more conservatively. I think he would be toward the political center from where Mike Lee’s at but I think he would be more conservative than Mitt Romney has been,” Cann said.

Wilson didn’t mention former President Donald Trump or any other Republican candidates for president in 2024 in his speech, but he has previously supported Trump.

Compared to Romney, 76, who was a household name in Utah and beyond when he ran for Senate, Wilson will have a bigger challenge becoming known to the many voters unfamiliar with the top-ranking figure in the state House. The $2.2 million Wilson has raised so far — including $1.2 million of his own money — will help, Cann said.

A commercial developer and home builder, Wilson repeatedly touted himself as a “conservative fighter” and highlighted his ability to create jobs.

A handful of lesser known Republicans have already entered the race.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, a securities investor who has called Romney a “Massachusetts millionaire” and promised to push back on “government overreach,” was first to announce in May.

Rod Bird Jr., mayor of the small Utah town of Roosevelt and the founder of an oilfield supply company, announced his campaign last week. He has said he supports term limits and more limits on federal lobbying.

Curtis, who has been in Congress since 2018, would add another big name to the race. His campaign manager, Adrielle Herring, said in a statement Wednesday that “everything is pointing’ in a direction for Curtis to run for the seat after they got favorable results from their own polling.

“Nonetheless, it’s a big decision,” Herring said in a statement. “So he’s taking a moment to decide whether he can do the most good for Utah in the House or the Senate.”

Another possible candidate is Tim Ballard, founder of the anti-child-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad. The organization inspired a film popular with conservative moviegoers last summer, “Sound of Freedom,” even as Ballard was ousted from Operation Underground Railroad amid reports of sexual misconduct. Ballard denies the claims.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, meanwhile, has publicly rebuked Ballard, saying he misused his friendship with a high-ranking church official for personal gain and engaged in “morally unacceptable” activity. Ballard, a member of the church, has denied those claims, too.

Wilson’s priorities in the Utah Legislature have included cutting taxes and confronting the environmental challenges facing the Great Salt Lake.

Wilson has satisfied conservatives by supporting restrictions on abortion and transgender youth health care and participation in sports but been more moderate by helping quash a 2020 push to formally rebuke Romney over his votes to impeach Trump.

The winner of next year’s Republican primary on June 25 will be heavily favored to win the general election in November. The state’s Republican outnumber Democrats by a more than 3 to 1 margin.


Gruver reported from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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