MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE, Weber County — Over a plate of oversized buttermilk pancakes, Mitt Romney said Friday he's running for Senate to fight for what he believes in, including much of President Donald Trump's policy agenda.
"I’m in the fight. Just because you don’t get promoted to general doesn’t mean you stop fighting. There are things I believe in very deeply," the 2012 GOP presidential nominee exclusively told the Deseret News in his first interview as a candidate.
Romney, 70, who earlier Friday launched his campaign via an online video for the seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said during his diner breakfast that he believes he'd be able to do more for Utah than the average freshman senator.
That's because he has built personal relationships with many members of the Senate, he said, including some 40 Republicans that he has campaigned for over the years, as well as within the Trump administration.
Although Romney was one of Trump's harshest critics during the 2016 presidential primary, labeling the now president a fraud and a phony in a speech at the University of Utah, he said he sees Trump differently now.
"The president and I have spoken a couple of times in the last few months," Romney said, noting that he got to know Trump better when he was briefly considered for secretary of state.
"I'm with his domestic policy agenda that he has put in place so far — lower taxes, lower regulation, lower bureaucracy," Romney said, although he added he considers himself more conservative when it comes to the nation's growing debt.
Trump has been "pretty effective" to date, Romney said, citing other "substantial accomplishments," including federal court appointments. "You have to look and say how’s it been in the first year and frankly a lot’s been done."
But Romney said that despite seeing an agenda from the White House that is similar to what he campaigned on in 2012, he will continue to call out Trump when he disagrees with what the president is doing.
"Where I have taken exception is with some of the things he's said or tweeted. He's not going to change, and I'm still going to be the guy who calls them like I see them," Romney said.
He said he believes the allegations of domestic violence from the two ex-wives of former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who previously served as Hatch's chief of staff, and questioned how the administration handled the situation.
"Institutions of any kind should take whatever action they can to demonstrate that they find abuse unacceptable," Romney said. "The White House could have done a much better job."
Just what form his opposition to the Trump White House would take should he be elected a senator remains to be seen.
He said it's too soon to say if he would ever denounce Trump's actions from the Senate floor, as retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and other Republicans have done on a variety of issues.
Romney spent much of his professional life in Massachusetts, where he first ran for the Senate in 1994 against then-Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat. He is best known in Utah for turning around the troubled 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
After the Olympics, he returned to Massachusetts and was elected governor before running for president in 2008 and 2012. Romney said he's lived in Utah for a total of 10 years, including as a BYU student, and has been a permanent resident since 2014.
"My roots are deep here," he said, although at one point during the interview while talking about the importance of states leading out on policy, Romney spoke of Massachusetts as "my state where I served as governor years ago."
Romney said he and his wife, Ann, plan to live in Utah "the rest of our lives. This is home. Home was Massachusetts for many years. I was there because that was where my job was. But this is where we want to be."
He said it's a "natural question" for people to ask about his ties to Utah. Romney said he owns a home in an upscale Holladay neighborhood, shares a Deer Valley house, and still maintains homes in San Diego and New Hampshire.
Asked whether his personal wealth might put off Utah voters, Romney said "people know me pretty well here" and are comfortable with him and his success in the business world, just as they are with Trump.
The president, Romney said, "didn't apologize for his success, nor do I."
He ruled out both a role in Senate leadership and another run for president in 2020, but stopped short of endorsing Trump for a second term even though he expects he "almost certainly will be the nominee if he chooses to run again."
And, Romney predicted, Republicans will maintain control of both the House and Senate in November's midterm elections because Americans are "going to vote their pocketbooks" and reward the GOP for the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed late last year.
At Jeremiah's Restaurant, Romney greeted customers and posed for pictures before heading to a nearby dairy farm in West Weber, Gibson's Green Acres, where he drove a tractor and toured the milking barn and corral.
Referring to himself as "just a politician" to the jersey cows lined up for feeding, he called out, "If you want some B.S., there's some over here."
Farm co-owner and Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson said Romney's visit shows his interest in learning about the value of agriculture in the community.
"Anytime we can get someone of Gov. Romney's stature to learn and understand the challenges we face in agriculture, it means an awful lot to us," he said.
Later, Romney stopped by the Utah Valley University campus and spent about 30 minutes mostly posing for selfies with students and encouraging them to join "Team Mitt." He did not take questions there from reporters.
In his video launch, Romney praised Utahns' "can-do pioneering spirit" and called out federal dysfunction.
"Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in Washington," Romney says in the 2 ½-minute clip.
He said in the video he decided to run for Senate to help bring Utah's values and lessons to Washington.
"Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah," he said.
Utah has balanced its budgets, while the federal government is buried in debt. Utah exports more than it imports; Washington has that backward, Romney says in the video. Utah welcomes legal immigrants, while Washington sends them a message of exclusion, he said.
If he wins, he said he would owe the seat to no one but the people of Utah. No donor or corporation would own his campaign or bias his vote, he said.
He concludes the video saying, "And let there be no question: I will fight for Utah."
In the coming months, Romney plans to visit each of the state’s 29 counties to talk with Utahns about their priorities, issues and concerns, according to his campaign.
Utah’s dual-track nomination process includes gathering signatures for a June primary election and participating in the caucus and convention system. Romney plans to participate in both the signature-gathering process and the state GOP convention in April.
"I'm going belt and suspenders," Romney said during the interview. "I want to get on the ballot one way or both."
Republican Larry Meyers, a St. George attorney running for the Senate seat, unveiled a radio ad Friday aimed at "Massachusetts Mitt Romney."
In the ad, Meyers says Romney "threw away" an election in 2012, leading to four more years of President Barack Obama and now thinks the U.S. Senate is his "consolation prize."
"Now Romney is trying to jet set his way into Utah and buy our Senate seat," says Meyers, who describes himself as conservative. He has served on the state GOP Central Committee and as a county party officer and national delegate.
Meyers has not declared his intent to collect signatures to get on the primary election ballot, but three other Republicans besides Romney have, according to the state elections website.
Democratic Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who started campaigning for the seat last summer, said Romney's entry in the race "energized" her.
"I'm very motivated to fight in this race, not because it's Mitt, I mean I like him, it's because of what he's representing now and what we've seen in this state," she said.
Utahns, Wilson said, want straight talk on issues but have seen Romney "wander all over the place" and migrate to whatever is politically expedient. Voters don't know what they're getting, she said.
"Would I love to have Mitt come back and run the Games again? Absolutely. It's just I think he's miscast at the sunset of his career for this role," Wilson said.
Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas welcomed Romney to the race and promptly ripped into his candidacy.108 comments on this story
Democrats and "apparently leaders of his own party" have serious concerns about Romney's record, she said. Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson recently compared Romney’s run to Hillary Clinton’s successful bid for the Senate in New York in 2000.
Thomas also said Romney gave some "false narratives" in his video.
"Unlike Washington, Utah is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget," she said. "Like Washington, the Utah Legislature is swirling in scandal and saturated with men who are unable to respect the voices and bodies of women."
Contributing: Sam Penrod