Race to replace Mitt Romney heats up as Republican Utah House speaker readies to enter

Republican Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson is poised to formally announce at a Wednesday night rally that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Mitt Romney, who recently announced he won’t run for reelection.

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.

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.

Wilson, 54, who was first elected to Utah’s House in 2010 and has been speaker for three terms, has all but said he is running. He 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 would be the first major GOP candidate to enter what is expected to be a crowded field.

A commercial developer and home builder, Wilson calls himself a “conservative fighter” and touts his ability to create jobs. His announcement will come at an event in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper.

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.

Others who have expressed interest in the seat include 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.

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