Mitt Romney wins GOP primary in Utah Senate race

Mitt Romney, former GOP presidential nominee Romney addresses supporters at their campaign headquarters during an election night party Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in Orem, Utah. Romney has won the Republican primary for a Utah Senate seat, setting him on the path to re-start his political career with a Senate seat left open by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mitt Romney handily won the Republican primary for a Utah Senate seat Tuesday after toning down his criticism of Donald Trump as he looks to re-start his political career.

The former presidential candidate and beloved adopted son in Utah won a landslide victory in the race to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah.

But he was forced into a primary after a narrow loss to state lawmaker Mike Kennedy in front of a right-leaning group of core GOP party members at the state convention in April.

During the campaign, Kennedy painted his political-heavyweight opponent as an out-of-towner who couldn’t get along with Trump.

Romney had blasted Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud,” during the 2016 presidential campaign, but his tone has changed significantly since then.

Romney has accepted the president’s endorsement and predicted Trump will be re-elected, though Romney also said he’ll speak out on significant matters he considers racist, sexist or anti-immigrant.

President Trump congratulated Romney on Twitter: “Big and conclusive win by Mitt Romney. Congratulations! I look forward to working together – there is so much good to do. A great and loving family will be coming to D.C.”

Romney spoke at sunset from a podium set in front of picturesque mountains, surrounded by his wife, Ann, and some of their children and grandchildren.

He promised to “make sure that the example I set as a leader is consistent with the values of our state and the great founding values of the United States of America” in Washington.

He now faces Democratic Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, though GOP candidates have a big upper hand in the conservative state.

Kennedy said he’s glad he ran against Romney to make the race more interesting, but he respects the choice of voters and will now back him as he moves toward becoming Utah’s next senator.

I hope he represents Utah values well,” Kennedy said. “I’m happy to serve and help in making sure he’s successful.”

Romney moved to Utah after his failed 2012 presidential run. He’s known there for turning around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after a bribery scandal and later becoming the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.

In another marquee race in Utah, U.S. Rep. John Curtis took a major step toward winning his first full term in Congress in the 3rd Congressional District, stretching from Salt Lake City suburbs to the state’s southeast corner.

He won a special election last year to finish Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s term, and declared victory Tuesday in a rematch against former state lawmaker Chris Herrod.

The hard-right leaning Herrod is known for his strict stance on immigration and has strongly aligned himself with Trump.

Curtis, meanwhile, is considered more moderate and has spoken against broad-based tariffs and bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons.

On the Democratic side, businessman Kurt Weiland and social worker Lee Castillo were competing to face eight-term U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican in the 1st Congressional District in northern Utah.

Other noteworthy candidates competing in races Tuesday include Democrat Derek Kitchen, a Salt Lake City councilman running for the state Legislature. He rose to prominence when he and his partner were part of a lawsuit that overturned Utah’s ban on gay marriage.

He’s facing physician Jennifer Plumb, a doctor who vows to work to reduce opioid overdoses, in the primary to replace outspoken Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis.

GOP voters were also deciding the next sheriff of Utah County. Pleasant Grove Police Chief Mike Smith was vying in the Republican primary against U.S. Marshal Jim Phelps to replace Jim Tracy, who is retiring as the sheriff of Utah’s second-largest county.

There are no candidates on the Democratic side, so Tuesday’s winner will be unopposed in November.

State director of elections Justin Lee said that 301,000 ballots had been cast by mail or through early voting. It’s unclear how many voters are eligible to vote in the primary because there aren’t races in every party in every part of the state.

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Associated Press writers Julian Hattem and Rick Bowmer in Salt Lake City and Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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