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Mitt Romney faces new challenger in GOP primary for Utah Senate seat

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs announced plans to run for U.S. Senate next year and challenge first-term Republican Mitt Romney in what could emerge as a competitive primary battle in the deeply conservative state.

Romney, 76, has not yet announced whether he plans to seek reelection, but his transformation from 2012 presidential candidate to a recurring critic of President Donald Trump has led many to believe Trump could be vulnerable in next year's Republican primary.

“The only thing I've seen him fight for are the Establishment, ‘wokeness,' open borders, impeaching President Trump and putting us even deeper into debt,” Staggs says in an announcement video that highlights Romney's votes to impeach Trump.

Staggs, 49, is one of several candidates expected to run to the right of Romney and, in the announcement, brands the incumbent as a “Massachusetts millionaire” who moved to Utah.

After a career in securities trading, Staggs was elected mayor of Riverton in 2017. He has focused throughout his tenure on typical municipal issues including policing, budgets, managing growth and spurring development.

“That's what I want to take to D.C.,” he said in an interview. “As a mayor, I'm on the front lines of pushing back on government overreach.”

In the months leading up to his announcement, he’s grown increasingly vocal on other issues, spearheading resolutions against “ ESG ” investing principles and speaking out against library books he called “pornographic” on Jordan School District shelves last month.

Staggs' announcement makes him the first Republican to officially enter the race, though Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson set up an exploratory committee in April, allowing him to raise funds toward a candidacy. Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz told The Associated Press in February that he was thinking about running. A representative for state Attorney General Sean Reyes has also said many were pressuring him to run as well.

Though Romney has vocal critics in Utah Republican Party activist circles, his challengers will likely face an uphill battle owing to his widespread popularity as one of the most prominent members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as a person who helped save the 2002 Winter Olympics after a bribery scandal.

Romney defeated a rightwing challenger by more than 40 percentage points in Utah's June 2018 Republican Senate primary before winning the general election by a margin nearly as large. He raised and spent more than $4 million in campaign contributions that year.

Staggs said he was confident he could overcome Romney's national name recognition, given his early conversations with Utah voters, particularly Republican primary voters.

"The question is whether or not Utah has a Senator in Romney who’s supporting them. So many have told me they don’t feel he represents them. They feel abandoned," he said.

Romney did not immediately respond to request for comment.