Sen. Mitt Romney endorsed 3rd Congressional District candidate Stewart Peay on Wednesday. This is Romney’s first official endorsement in a federal race this election cycle and could boost Peay’s candidacy among a crowded field of Republican primary opponents.

The announcement comes two weeks after former 2nd District congressman Chris Stewart endorsed Peay. Stewart and Romney both emphasized Peay’s military background in their respective endorsements.

“Stewart is a true American patriot who has served our country and community with distinction,” Romney said in a statement released by the Peay campaign. “Whether as an Army Officer in Iraq or as Chairman of the Utah County Republican Party, Stewart has shown the kind of leadership we need in Congress. I am endorsing him because I know and trust him to be a principled and intelligent leader who will bring a valuable national security perspective to Utah’s delegation. He will be an effective member of Congress and is worthy of your support.”

In an interview with the Deseret News and KSL, Peay said Romney’s endorsement was “absolutely” a game changer for his campaign and cemented his lane among Republican voters in a district that includes Sandy, Draper, much of Utah County and all of eastern Utah.

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“I believe that this endorsement shines a light on me as being a substantive, serious individual who can go to Congress, who can legislate and who can effectively represent the 3rd Congressional District,” Peay said.

Romney has so far refrained from endorsing any congressional candidates this election cycle. In December, the former two-time GOP presidential nominee, who has had a long-running feud with former President Donald Trump, said his endorsement in the Republican presidential primary would be “the kiss of death” for that candidate. Though Romney is unpopular with Utah voters who identify as “very conservative,” Peay believes the endorsement indicates he is more committed to policymaking than political point-scoring.

“I can’t tell you how every voter will react,” Peay said. “Regardless of what you might think of Sen. Romney, he’s been effective for Utah in a short amount of time. And I appreciate his help in identifying for Republican voters a candidate who shares their traditional values and will continue the effective Republican representation of the 3rd Congressional District.”

Peay has known Romney since marrying his niece, Misha, 26 years ago and their relationship has included many conversations about politics, including during both of Romney’s presidential campaigns and during his time in the Senate, Peay said. But Peay said his family connection to Romney is not the basis for the endorsement.

“It’s him observing my life,” Peay said. “I think he has been able to witness that I’m a serious person, that I’m a person that’s been effective in very many and very different aspects of life. And as a result I think he’s able to make the judgment that I’m the type of conservative that needs to get into this race and wants to be a responsible, serious and substantive legislator.”

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Peay is a Utah County native who specializes in commercial litigation at a private firm. He previously joined the Utah Army National Guard while studying at Brigham Young University and served for 12 years, including a yearlong tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 where he served as a military intelligence officer.

As the only veteran in the race, Peay has tried to set himself apart from the field by leaning into his military background, including on topics that divide conservatives. He says the U.S. must continue to assist its allies abroad with military aid, including Ukraine, to deter future aggression from China. He also believes Republicans need to be pragmatic in how they work across the aisle to show they can actually govern to get things done.

“We don’t have a veteran currently in our delegation and I think that’s an important thing,” Peay said. “We understand the sacrifices that are required to keep our country free. And we understand what those sacrifices mean. And we’ve shown that we’re willing to sacrifice for this country.”

Peay launched his campaign for Rep. John Curtis’ open seat after the congressman exchanged his reelection to the U.S. House for a chance to replace Romney as Utah’s junior senator. Peay ran against Curtis in the 3rd District’s special election in 2017 before being eliminated in the state GOP nominating convention that year.

Peay was again eliminated in this year’s convention, on April 26, but will appear on the primary ballot as one of four candidates, including Roosevelt mayor JR Bird, entrepreneur Case Lawrence and state auditor John Dougall, who qualified after gathering 7,000 certified signatures. They will face the convention nominee, state Sen. Mike Kennedy, in the June 25 primary.

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Peay had raised the least money of the five candidates before the convention, with under $116,700 in campaign contributions. Dougall raised slightly more and loaned his campaign $250,000. Bird raised a similar amount and loaned himself more than $1 million. Lawrence loaned himself nearly $1.3 million and brought in $336,000 in campaign contributions — putting him out front in terms of fundraising. Kennedy didn’t loan his campaign anything but has received more campaign contributions than any candidate, at nearly $341,700, since launching his campaign.

The Republican nominee will face off against Democratic candidate Glenn Wright on Nov. 5. Wright is an Air Force veteran and former member of the Summit County Council. He ran against Curtis in 2022 and lost.