Romney announces US Senate run

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney said in a video announcement Friday that he will run for the US Senate from Utah, setting out on a glide path to Washington where he will likely play a central role driving the direction of the fractious Republican Party.

"I have decided to run for United States Senate because I believe I can help bring Utah's values and Utah's lessons to Washington," he says in the clip.

Until relatively recently, this would have been an unlikely path for Romney, who retreated from the national spotlight after losing the 2012 presidential election to then-President Barack Obama. But Romney has re-emerged on the political scene as a powerful voice calling out the inflammatory statements and conduct of President Donald Trump.

Romney's fiery rebukes of Trump's crude comments on topics ranging from the character of Mexican immigrants to sexual harassment made him a hero of the #NeverTrump movement and a set of Democratic admirers. His criticism of Trump has been especially notable considering the President once considered him as a candidate for secretary of state, a courtship that many friends of Romney later viewed as a token gesture by Trump to generate publicity.

Romney avoided direct broadsides at the President Friday, though he did say Utah "welcomes legal immigrants from around the world -- Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion. And on Utah's Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect."

Romney is running to replace retiring GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch. In the video, he focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Utah, a state where he established his permanent residency in 2014.

The 2012 presidential nominee said he was seeking the new role because he hoped to replicate some of Utah's policy and economic successes at the national level -- from curbing government spending to enhancing bipartisan collaboration on legislation in Washington.

"Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah," he says in the video.

Easy race expected

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is expected to have an easy race because of his enormous popularity in Utah, where he attended college at Brigham Young University and has long owned a home in Park City. Beyond his deep connections to the Mormon church, he drew broad admiration from Utahns after helping to turn around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic games.

During conversations with several dozen Utah voters when Romney was mulling a run in December, many mentioned his leadership of the games, which were mired in a bribery scandal when he left his business to take them over in 1999, as a key asset in his quest for the Senate post.

"Utah became associated with bribery, which was completely against anything Utah stands for -- it stands for ethics and doing the right things -- so this was really hurtful to the people of Utah to be tainted with that serious issue," said Fraser Bullock, who worked closely with Romney as the chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the 2002 games.

"You needed an inspirational leader, and Mitt became that," Bullock said. "He became the face of the games -- that there was hope to get out of this dark place. And little by little, month by month, people could see the progress that he was making; that he was completely transparent, that he was engaging and sunny -- and all in to make this work."

Utahns became acquainted with Romney over the three-year run up to the games, which ultimately generated a $100 million profit. The success of the 2002 Olympics games solidified his profile, which was only heightened by his presidential run.

"He was right in the center of the sweet spot for Utah politically when he ran for president," said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who advised Romney during that campaign. "He has a center-right philosophy that's quite consistent with the main stream of Utah."

Romney's popularity far outpaces that of Trump, whose approval rating in Utah ranks far below that of other Republican presidents. Romney beat Obama in the state in 2012, 73% to 25%.

By contrast in a three-way race in 2016, Trump won Utah with 45.5% to Hillary Clinton's 27.5%. Independent Evan McMullin, a Utah native who positioned himself as a voice of the #NeverTrump movement, won 21.5% of the vote.

Still, his likely Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, slammed Romney before he even announced his run, painting him as someone who doesn't understand the state.

"Utah needs an independent voice for our communities that are struggling, not a hand-picked candidate of the Washington establishment," said Wilson, a member of the Salt Lake County Council. "Utah families deserve a Utahn as their senator, not a Massachusetts governor who thinks of our state as his vacation home."