A statue of Abraham Lincoln watches over voters as they cast their ballots during Election Day at the Salt Lake County vote center in Trolley Square in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Steve Griffin/The Deseret News via AP)

GOP voters eye Romney reboot in US Senate primary in Utah

June 26, 2018 - 4:53 pm

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican voters in the U.S. Senate primary in Utah were deciding Tuesday between Mitt Romney and a state lawmaker who kept him from getting the GOP nomination at the party's convention as the former presidential candidate looks to restart his political career.

Romney has deflected attacks on his criticism of President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign while saying his political track record would give Utah more clout in Washington.

He said in an op-ed published Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune that Trump administration policies have exceeded his expectations. Still, he pledged to "continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions."

Software engineer Alan Wessman, a 43-year-old Republican from Spanish Fork, said he liked it when Romney was critical of the president.

"I've been disappointed to see him basically kind of turn to mush on that," Wessman said.

Still, he said he'd cast his vote for Romney over state Rep. Mike Kennedy.

Kennedy says he is the true conservative in the race and would work better with Trump. His pitch won over hard-right leaning delegates in April at the party's convention, where neither candidate won 60 percent of delegates' votes in the race for the seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Kennedy supporter Jesse Sloan said he prefers the lawyer and family doctor to Romney because the former Massachusetts governor isn't in tune with Utah values such as a commitment to gun rights and opposition to abortion.

"We got Romney coming in from Boston or wherever and I don't think he really sees eye-to-eye with us," Sloan said.

Kennedy had a hardscrabble upbringing as one of seven children raised by a single mother. The father of eight lives in Alpine and is now worth up to about $2 million, a healthy figure that's nevertheless a far cry from Romney's reported fortune of as much as $270 million.

Romney has Trump's endorsement and is favored to win in the state where he's a beloved adopted son among many voters. Early Tuesday, he greeted patrons at a Utah diner and sat down to a pancake breakfast with his wife Ann.

Kennedy cast his ballot early in the day and made calls to voters, according to his spokeswoman Cindie Quintana.

Romney raised nearly $2 million for his campaign over the past two months, while Kennedy took in $152,000.

Another marquee race Tuesday in Utah has U.S. Rep. John Curtis looking to take 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 is now facing 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.

The winner of both GOP primaries will be favorites to win in November in the overwhelmingly Republican state.

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 on 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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