When Mitt Romney officially jumped into the Utah Senate race back in February, Jenny Wilson figured her campaign was over.
“But I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Wilson told IJR in an exclusive interview. “I now really believe this race is winnable.”
A relatively unknown Democratic Salt Lake County councilwoman, Wilson should be a walk in the park for a Republican juggernaut like Romney thanks to his national name recognition and Utah ties.
But as 2018 continued to produce political upset after political upset, and with a wave of female candidates emerging as a potent political force, Wilson is ready to shock the world.
“Don’t bet against me,” she said.
Wilson, a fifth-generation Utahn, kicked off her Senate campaign long before the former Republican presidential nominee threw his hat into the ring and even before Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) announced his retirement.
She initially hoped to get a shot at running against Hatch in November, who Wilson figured would be rather vulnerable if he chose to run for an 8th term in Congress. Instead, she now faces the candidate with possibly the biggest name recognition on the ballot this year.
“Romney is playing it safe.”
And according to the latest UtahPolicy.com survey, which was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, Wilson has quite a mountain to climb if she’s going to win in November, as Romney currently holds a 26-point lead with just weeks to go before Election Day.
When presented with the mounting odds stacked against her, Wilson, ironically, argues that her campaign could very well prove the polls wrong this November just like President Donald Trump did a few years back when “every poll showed a Clinton victory in 2016.”
“We are surging, he is falling,” Wilson argued.
And while Romney is still the surefire favorite to join the Senate next year, the Democratic underdog does have a point.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, may be far ahead in the polls, but his support is historically low for a Republican in a deep-red state like Utah, with his latest numbers ranking as the lowest for a Republican Senate candidate in more than two decades.
But even if Wilson was to win every undecided voter in the Beehive State, she would still need to peel voters away from Romney’s camp — a tall order as the Democrat continues to fight just to get her opponent to even acknowledge her candidacy.
Romney’s remained silent regarding Wilson, staying positive in ads and mostly making headlines with comments regarding the president rather than his opponent. Last month, Wilson called out the former governor for “hiding” from and ducking a debate on immigration policy.
“Romney recognizes that there is a different point of view, and in the year of the woman, he’s scared that these trends might harm him even further,” Wilson said. “Romney is playing it safe.”
If there is a year Romney could fall, it would be “the year of the woman,” Wilson said, adding that she feels a connection to the other female candidates that have already made history this election cycle.
“In this era, there is a call to action for thousands of women to run. We don’t all agree on every issue, but it’s time for change,” she said.
Wilson isn’t new to blazing her own trail. She remembers battling the “old boys club” back in the 1990s when she worked as one of the youngest female chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill during her time in former Rep. Bill Orton’s (D-Utah) office.
“I really got used to the old boys club and how things worked back then,” Wilson said. “But now, women are saying, ‘I don’t want that anymore. I want my government to represent my values.'”
But ultimately, Wilson’s line of attack against Romney remains familiar and perhaps insufficient: He’s a flip-flopper, a carpetbagger, he’s not really running for Utah.
“We have seen Romney go from pro-choice, very strongly articulating and advocating for a women’s right to choose, to flip-flopping over to more conservative views, and now I guess he’s conservative again on that issue?” Wilson said.
“I’m not going to say yes to everything Chuck Schumer asks of me.”
“There was quite a bit of excitement when Romney ran for president both times,” she added. “But now, people are saying he’s not from here, he’s not consistent, he’s a flip-flopper. And why is he doing this?”
Similar digs at Romney may have been successful during his two failed presidential campaigns, but in a Republican stronghold strong like Utah, with his entrenched ties to the Mormon church and the lore surrounding his work to save the 2002 Winter Olympics in the state, it’s hard to imagine it being as effective this time around.
And while the pair may differ on many issues, they appear to both take similar stances on how they’d handle working with Trump — perhaps the one issue Democrats continue to hang around Republicans’ necks.
Romney, who was one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics during the 2016 election, now says he’s willing to work with the president. And Wilson nearly echoes Romney regarding Trump, rejecting her party’s more progressive wing and insisting that she’s also willing to do business with the president if it’s good for Utah.
“What Utah needs most is an advocate for our needs. I’m not going to be deeply entrenched in the partisan elements as a member of Congress,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that she has no problem bucking her own party if necessary.
“I’m an issue-driven person, and I like working with Republicans,” she said. “I’m not going to say yes to everything Chuck Schumer asks of me. I am going to put Utah first. I don’t see myself as a hardened partisan.”
But for Wilson to somehow best Romney, it would probably require one hell of an October surprise. Time is running out, and the numbers don’t look good for Utah to elect its first Democratic senator in nearly 60 years.
Wilson, however, remains hopeful — hopeful that her state is going through a transformation and that sooner or later, regardless of her campaign’s outcome, a shift in leadership is on the way.
“Utah is changing, our demographics are changing. We just need our political representation to change along with it,” Wilson said. “People in Utah want change, and I think more than ever, they are starving for something different.”