It’s parade season in Utah, and U.S. Senate candidate Mike Kennedy is taking advantage of the summer festivities to shake every hand he can. As the underdog in the Republican primary for Utah’s open seat, he says it's a must.
Kennedy is running a fairly grassroots campaign, “shaking hands with people, meeting in their backyards, doing parades,” he said. “Making sure that they know that I’m out there and want to serve them if they would like me to serve them.”
Kennedy and his wife, Katrina, have eight children and three young grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. The 49-year-old has a law degree and a medical degree. He works as a family physician and has represented northeastern Utah County in the state legislature since 2013.
His campaign marched last weekend in South Jordan’s Summerfest Parade. Afterward, he had a few minutes for an interview in the shade before heading off to shake more hands at a community event in Eagle Mountain.
Kennedy is campaigning as a homegrown conservative, even though, like Mitt Romney, he moved from Michigan to Utah to attend Brigham Young University.
As a Republican running against the well-known and well-funded frontrunner, Kennedy sometimes struggles to differentiate himself ideologically from the two-time presidential candidate.
Their similarities were highlighted last week — in a debate of all places. Both support immigration reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act. The two also said if elected to Congress, they would refuse to vote on omnibus spending bills.
But Kennedy tries to get some swings in against Romney where he can, often portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper from out of state.
When asked about his performance in the debate, Kennedy said he thought he did well, “considering the fact that I’ve not run two presidential campaigns and done multiple debates before.”
The two candidates don’t agree on everything. Their debate showed policy differences on gun control following a wave of school shootings. Romney said gun control should be a state issue, though at the federal level, he’d support universal background checks and banning bump stocks.
Kennedy claims school shootings are mainly a mental health issue. He also created a statewide school safety commission earlier this year. But the Alpine resident said he refuses to budge on legislation he thinks would curtail the Second Amendment.
“Community-based solutions are what’s going to work, and we need to focus on the perpetrator of the crime, not on the weapon that’s used,” he said.
Kennedy says he’s a solid, consistent conservative, which was enough for Lyman Momeny to support him. Momeny, a lifelong Republican voter, cares about what he calls regular conservative issues: immigration, the Second Amendment and states’ rights.
He supported Romney during his last presidential run but said the candidate’s positions have become too fluid.
“Voting for any politician, I don’t care what party you’re in, you would like to think that the person you’re voting for represents your views fairly consistently," he said.
These days Momeny wears a hat with the slogan “Make Mitt Lose Again.” He supports President Trump, which is another reason he likes Mike Kennedy. The three-term state representative is campaigning as the unapologetic pro-Trump Republican in the race. Kennedy says he trusts the president’s judgment, even on a trade war.
“Because of what he’s done, I expect even the tariffs are going to work out really well for us as a country,” Kennedy said. “When it comes to supporting the president, I don’t see anything that I would disagree with his policies on at this point.”
Trump won the election in Utah with 46 percent of the vote. Since then, his approval among Utahns has hovered right around 50 percent, a voting bloc Kennedy is hoping to capture in the primary.
He frequently brings up a speech Romney gave in 2016, when his current opponent warned against electing Trump, calling him a "phony" and a "fraud." Kennedy says this refutes Romney’s claims of having good working relationships in Washington.
But Kennedy wasn’t always a Trump defender. After being pressed by reporters, he revealed last week that he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. Instead, he wrote in his choice of Ted Cruz.
“I wasn’t sure, like many Utahns, where the president stood,” he said after his first and only debate with Romney. “I wasn’t sure who he was going to be. But I stand firmly with the president and expect in the next election, he’d going to win this state in a landslide. He’s had a lot of converts in this state as a result of the work that he’s done.”
Kennedy has to hope he can reach enough pro-Trump Utah Republicans to put him over the edge in the June 26 primary, but he has a long way to go.
A UtahPolicy.com poll put Kennedy about 40 points behind Romney among likely Republican voters. But if the first-time Senate candidate is worried by the poll numbers, he doesn’t show it. He compares it to a midterm exam.
“If I didn’t score as well on the midterm, we just need to work and prepare ourselves for the final exam,” he said.
“I suspect the poll’s a little inaccurate,” Kennedy added, noting the polling was done before his campaign sent out mailers and aired TV and radio ads. “But we’re going to just keep working hard to make sure the people know that we’re there and that we love them and want to serve them.”
That means more parades and meet-and-greets across the state before the June 26 primary.