SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney handily won a U.S. Senate seat in his adopted home state of Utah on Tuesday after a campaign where he backed off his once-fierce criticism of President Donald Trump.
He will replace longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is retiring after more than 40 years.
Romney was the heavy favorite to win the seat in conservative Utah, where he holds near-celebrity status as the first Mormon presidential nominee from a major party.
He defeated Democrat Jenny Wilson, a member of the Salt Lake County council.
Romney denounced Trump as a “fraud” and a “phony” during the 2016 campaign, but has since changed his tone, saying he approves of many Trump policies and predicting he will win another term. Trump, for his part, has endorsed Romney’s Senate run.
But Romney has also pledged to continue to speak out if Trump does something significant that is “divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.” Last week, he pushed back against Trump’s depiction of the media as an “enemy of the people.”
Romney, 71, moved after his failed 2012 presidential run to Utah, where he’s also known for running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. His past criticism of Trump wasn’t a serious liability in Utah, where many voters are wary of the president.
With polls heavily in his favor, Romney has been campaigning for other Republican candidates in Utah and Arizona.
The former Massachusetts governor argued during the Utah campaign that his political profile would be a boon to Utah’s standing in Washington.
He won a primary against a state lawmaker in a landslide in June before turning to face Wilson in the general election.
Wilson, 53, has a political pedigree as the daughter of a former mayor and worked with Romney at the 2002 Olympics, but she had an uphill climb since the race began. The last Democrat Utah sent to the U.S. Senate was Frank Moss, who was defeated by Hatch in 1976.