WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Mitt Romney was forced on Saturday into a Republican primary for a United States Senate seat in Utah as he looks to restart his political career by replacing Orrin G. Hatch, a longtime senator who is retiring.
Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and the Republican candidate for president in 2012, remains the heavy favorite to win the Senate seat in November. But he could have bypassed a primary altogether by earning a majority of votes on Saturday at the state’s G.O.P. convention.
Instead, the far-right party delegates preferred State Representative Mike Kennedy, who got 51 percent of the vote to Mr. Romney’s 49 percent.
Voters will decide between the candidates in a June 26 primary. Mr. Romney had previously secured his spot on the ballot by collecting 28,000 voter signatures, but he said on Saturday that the choice was partly to blame for his loss.
Gathering signatures is unpopular among many conservative delegates in the state who say it dilutes their ability to choose a candidate. The issue prompted hours of debate, shouting and booing at the convention.
Jenny Wilson, a councilwoman in Salt Lake County, is the leading Democratic candidate in a state that has had only Republican senators since 1977.
At the convention, Mr. Romney faced 11 other candidates, mostly political newcomers who questioned his criticism of President Trump and the depth of his ties to Utah. He had spent two months on the campaign trail visiting dairy farms, taking photos with college students and making stump speeches in small towns.
“Some people I’ve spoken with have said this is a David vs. Goliath race, but they’re wrong,” Mr. Romney said in his speech. “I’m not Goliath. Washington, D.C., is Goliath.”
Mr. Kennedy, a doctor and lawyer who has been a state lawmaker since 2013, received applause from the crowd as he criticized the national debt, Common Core education standards and President Barack Obama’s health care law. He framed himself as an underdog taking on the “Romney machine.”
After Mr. Romney’s failed presidential campaign, he moved to Utah, where he is popular because of his Mormon faith and his role in the 2002 Winter Olympics, which were held in Salt Lake City.
He has worked to keep the focus on state issues rather than his history of well-documented feuds with Mr. Trump, whom he called a “con man” and a phony during the 2016 race. Mr. Trump fired back that Mr. Romney “choked like a dog” during his own White House run.
The two men have shown signs of making peace, and Mr. Romney has accepted Mr. Trump’s endorsement. But Mr. Romney said on Saturday that he has not decided whether he will endorse the president’s 2020 re-election bid.
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