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Mitt Romney will have to face a primary in Utah’s Senate race

Romney lost the delegate vote at the Utah Republican Party’s state convention on Saturday.

Mitt Romney behind the wheel of a John Deere tractor on the campaign trail for the US Senate seat from Utah, currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Mitt Romney behind the wheel of a John Deere tractor on the campaign trail for the US Senate seat from Utah, currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

It won’t be smooth sailing for Mitt Romney’s 2018 Senate campaign in Utah. The former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate was narrowly defeated in the state’s right-leaning GOP convention on Saturday. He remains the heavy favorite but will have to take part in the state’s Republican primary in June.

Romney lost to state Rep. Mike Kennedy in two rounds of voting among delegates at the Utah Republican Party’s state convention in West Valley City, Utah, on Saturday. According to the Associated Press, Kennedy got 51 percent of the vote while Romney took home 49 percent.

They will head to a primary election on June 26 because neither candidate passed the 60 percent delegate threshold required to bypass it. (It’s worth noting that Romney had already qualified for the primary because he gathered 28,000 voter signatures — the only candidate in this race to have done so.)

In a tweet, Romney thanked the “delegates who hung in there with us all day” and said he looks forward to the primary election. He is seeking to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who plans to retire this year.

The signatures thing is a surprisingly big deal

That Romney gathered signatures to get onto the primary ballot is actually a point of contention among Utah Republicans. Conservative delegates see signature gathering to make the ballot as a measure that dilutes their power, and according to the Associated Press, the issue prompted hours of debate, shouting, and booing on Saturday.

“Frankly, given the fact that I collected signatures and the delegates don’t like people who collect signatures, I’m delighted with the outcome,” Romney told local outlet KSL.

He wouldn’t say whether he thought delegates were punishing him by sending him to a primary. “I can’t possibly imagine that I’m speaking for the minds of the delegates, but I know that there were many people that were not enthusiastic about someone who gathered signatures,” he said.

Romney was one of a dozen candidates seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for the US Senate and is still the frontrunner despite Saturday’s setback. “Mitt Romney is royalty here in the state of Utah,” Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox recently told Vox’s Tara Golshan. “And I can tell you the polling numbers we’ve seen over the past two years, he’s still the most popular politician in the state of Utah.”

Romney’s continuing to toe the line on Trump

Romney was a prominent voice of opposition to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. He conjectured that Trump was hiding a “bombshell of unusual size” in his tax returns and called him both a “phony” and a “fraud.” He said Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin while calling former President George W. Bush a liar was a “twisted example of evil Trumping good.”

But since announcing his Senate candidacy, he’s softened his tone in an attempt to woo conservative voters — even though Trump isn’t particularly popular in Utah. During the 2016 campaign, Romney said he would not have accepted Trump’s endorsement for his 2012 presidential bid given his racist and offensive comments. In February, however, he happily accepted the president’s Senate endorsement.

In March Romney said he is actually more conservative than the president on immigration and believes those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the United States legally.

In an interview with CNN on Saturday, Romney said he’s not sure yet if he’s going to support Trump’s 2020 campaign. “As a person of political experience, if I endorse someone I’ll want to know what’s in it for Utah and what help would he provide for us on key priorities in Utah,” he said. “I’m not a cheap date.”