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Annual Romney political retreat expected to be 'low-key'

Mitt Romney talks to the media after addressing House and Senate Republicans during their caucus lunch meetings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
FILE - Mitt Romney talks to the media after addressing House and Senate Republicans during their caucus lunch meetings at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Don't expect to see headline news coming from Mitt Romney's annual political retreat in Deer Valley this year now that he's a candidate in the upcoming GOP Senate primary.

"I think low-key is the right word for it," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, noting the lack of political star power at the invitation-only, three-day retreat that begins Thursday.

The list of speakers obtained by the Deseret News includes retiring U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who was Romney's running mate in his 2012 presidential bid, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"In some ways Paul Ryan and Michael Bloomberg are the voices of the past," Karpowitz said, "not necessarily representative of where the Republican Party is right now, at least at the national level" under President Donald Trump.

Ryan, Bloomberg (a former Republican turned independent), and the other politician on the list, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee), are "indicative of a different vision," he said.

Big names from past retreats include former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat; Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona; Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican; then-Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus; and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Karpowitz said Romney, who was one of Trump's harshest critics during the 2016 presidential primaries, clearly is not "eager to fully ally himself with the figures who are currently ascendant within the Republican Party," like Vice President Mike Pence.

But neither is Romney willing to embrace the president's foes, such as retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, the political science professor said, "Because it's a wise move for him not to overtly alienate Trump Republicans right before the primary."

So Romney has put himself in the difficult position of "trying to strike a careful balance between representing an alternative vision for Republican politics, but also not overtly criticizing or otherwise calling out the Trump administration," Karpowitz said.

Romney faces state Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a staunch supporter of Trump, in the June 26 GOP primary in the race for the seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Kennedy has declined to comment on Romney's retreat.

Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers said he sees this year's retreat as more "meaningful" because of an emphasis on raising awareness of Alzheimer's disease and a planned discussion on engaging women and millennial voters.

A group of CEOs are also speaking, including Meg Whitman, the former Hewlett Packard boss who ran for governor of California in 2010 and now heads NewTV, a recently launched mobile media startup.

While the 250 or so participants in what's known as the Experts and Enthusiasts Summit are largely backers of Romney's 2012 presidential run as the GOP nominee, Jowers said they don't all share the same opinion of Trump.

The retreat was "a pretty emotional one last year, between people who love President Trump and people who are disgusted by President Trump," Jowers said. "I would not expect there to be a repeat of that this year."

Romney, he said, recognizes that "there's a real reason not to pick any fights that you don't need to … because you never know who you're going to need to do the people's work most effectively," should he be elected to the Senate.

The tone is expected to be much more restrained that pre-2016 retreats that were seen as opportunities for potential Republican presidential contenders to court the big-money donors in attendance.

Jowers said that aside from when Romney was running for president, none of the retreats have served as campaign fundraisers and this one won't be any different, even though Romney is once again a candidate.

Earlier this year, Romney transferred $1 million from a presidential campaign account set up before his first run for president in 2008 into his Senate race, giving him a substantial financial advantage over his opponents.

Romney campaign spokeswoman MJ Henshaw said in a statement that the retreat is not a "campaign event."

Instead, Henshaw said, it's "an opportunity to bring like-minded experts and influencers to Utah to experience the beauty of our state and discuss a wide range of policy ideas. It is an opportunity to convene leaders, not a campaign event."

The retreat will be held at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley.