OREM — Mitt Romney is one step closer in his effort to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, unofficial returns show.
"It looks like our team won the primary," Romney told a cheering and flag-waving crowd gathered outside his campaign headquarters in an office park near the mountains Tuesday night.
Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, was ahead of Mike Kennedy, a state lawmaker from Alpine, 73 percent to 27 percent, in returns posted Tuesday night in the largely by-mail election. He was declared the winner by The Associated Press shortly after polls closed.
Kennedy did not concede the race until nearly an hour after Romney spoke, but did so in a brief phone call that Romney spokeswoman MJ Henshaw said lasted only about 30 seconds or so.
Romney told the Deseret News that he thought the results were "pretty clear" after talking to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who spoke to the crowd earlier, and hearing that the race had been called by major news organizations.
Kennedy told supporters gathered at a Lehi hotel that "regardless of the outcome tonight, I trust the good people of Utah because I know they are outstanding people, thoughtful people, and that we will move in the right direction."
Later, Kennedy told them he had conceded the race and wished Romney well. He urged his supporters to unite behind Romney and pledged to help him to "make sure Washington serves Utah" and not the other way around.
"I believe Gov. Romney will push ahead and serve us in that capacity and I certainly will support him in that effort to accomplish that goal," Kennedy said.
In his victory speech, Romney spoke of the record turnout in the primary election and promised he would continue to fight the conservative battles that have been waged in Washington by Hatch.
"Frankly, I believe Utah values are the very values that our country was founded upon," he said. Surrounded by family members, he said those values include welcoming immigrants and refugees who come here legally."
He never mentioned President Donald Trump, but said Utahns prize "rigorous debate and we expect the people who are our leaders to carry out these debates with civility and dignity."
Romney even took a moment to wish his Democratic opponent in November, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, well during a brief speech that was followed by shaking hands and posing for selfies with supporters.
"I'm ready to go," Wilson said. "I am not running to be relevant on the national scene but rather to serve Utah, as I have done throughout my life of local public service."
Romney has always been seen as the favorite in the race, even after Kennedy bested him at the state Republican Party convention in April, winning 51 percent of the delegate vote to 49 percent for Romney to force a primary election.
At the convention, Kennedy positioned himself as David to Romney's Goliath, even passing out foam stones to his supporters. It was enough for him to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney among the dozen Republicans in the race.
Romney was ready, having gathered voter signatures to guarantee he would be on the primary ballot no matter what happened at the party convention and transferring $1 million from his presidential runs into his Senate campaign account.
Kennedy never caught up to Romney's spending. By early June, Romney had gone through nearly $2 million, about five times as much as Kennedy, who had loaned his campaign nearly $300,000, about 60 percent of the $485,000 he reported raising.
Both candidates campaigned throughout the state and aired a steady stream of TV commercials. Kennedy has focused on his deeper roots in the state where he practices medicine and has served as a state lawmaker since 2013.
But Kennedy's attempts to draw attention to his candidacy hit a few snags, especially when he apologized to a Texas pastor after Romney called the man a bigot on Twitter for statements he'd made against the Mormon faith.
Meanwhile Romney, who successfully led the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City before returning to his then-home in Massachusetts and being elected governor, has long enjoyed "favorite son" status in Utah.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Romney won nearly 90 percent of the vote in the Utah primary against the GOP's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Four years later, Utah gave Romney his largest margin of victory, 73 percent.
Romney, who didn't get in the Senate race until February, after Hatch announced his long-awaited decision not to seek an eight term, held a 43-point lead over Kennedy in a recent UtahPolicy.com poll.
There had been talk of a possible Romney run in his adopted home state since early 2017, when he told the Deseret News "all doors are open" after mentioning the Senate race.
The race also received plenty of national attention. On Tuesday, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki highlighted the race as one of the most important in the country but an easy win for Romney because he's considered a "rock star" in Utah.
CNN and other networks reported live from the Romney event Tuesday night, sometimes struggling to be heard above "We want Mitt" cheers from supporters who'd dined on free hot dogs and shaved ice.
The national press is mostly interested in how Romney would get along with Trump. During the 2016 presidential primary, Romney slammed Trump as a fraud and a phony in a widely covered speech at the University of Utah.
Romney told the Deseret News the day he launched his campaign that he is with Trump's domestic policy agenda to lower taxes, regulation and bureaucracy but said he will still call out Trump when he disagrees with what the president is doing.
"Where I have taken exception is with some of the things he's said or tweeted," Romney said then. "He's not going to change, and I'm still going to be the guy who calls them like I see them."
Trump, who briefly considered Romney to be his secretary of state, backed him last February, in a tweet, saying Romney "will make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch, and has my full support and endorsement!"
Also on the November ballot for the Senate seat are Libertarian Craig Bowden, the Independent American party's Reed McCandless, Constitution Party's Tim Aalders, and several unaffiliated write-in candidates.