FARMINGTON, Utah (AP) — A potential challenger to Republican first-term Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah took a major step Thursday toward jumping into next year’s race, expected to be one of the GOP’s hardest-fought primary contests in 2024.

With memories of Romney’s two votes to impeach former President Donald Trump stillfresh, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson announced he was forming an exploratory committee 14 months before the scheduled primary.

Utah needs a “conservative fighter” who represents its values, not a “professional career politician,” Wilson told The Associated Press in an interview at his real estate office in northern Utah.

“I don’t have any illusions that, as speaker of the house, I’m a household name. But that’s really not what this is about. What this is about is me going out and understanding what people care about,” he said.

The move is just shy of making his campaign official and allows Wilson to raise money and campaign statewide.

Romney has not yet announced plans to seek reelection, but earlier this week filed preliminary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. He declined to comment on his statement of candidacy or Wilson’s announcement on Thursday.

Wilson’s exploratory committee potentially sets up the latest test of Republican Party attitudes toward members willing to criticize Trump after others, such as former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, were punished in GOP primaries or opted not to seek reelection.

Romney, 76, has long been revered in Utah as one of the most prominent members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a person who helped save the 2002 Winter Olympics after a bribery scandal. But the Republican Party’s rightward lurch and his stance as an outspoken Trump antagonist has sparked a growing chorus of questions about his reelection prospects.

The June 2024 primary campaign will overlap with the GOP’s presidential primary season, and should Romney run, Trump’s presence in that race will likely further focus attention on his criticism of the ex-president.

Romney’s willingness to buck his own party has routinely angered GOP activists in Utah and but did little to puncture support for him in his last Senate primary in 2018, when he lost a state party convention ballot but ultimately won with voters in the primary itself, by almost 43 percentage points.

Utah Republican Party Chair Carson Jorgensen said he does not expect Romney to seek reelection given his absences at recent state GOP events. Regardless, he said the party has changed since Romney last ran in ways that will affect the presidential and Senate races and how they become entangled.

Jorgensen added that he anticipates high voter turnout in both contests due to negative attitudes toward President Joe Biden among Utahns. That Romney hasn’t publicly made a decision could encourage many challengers to enter, since Senate seats open up so rarely, he added.

“The list of rumored names goes on and on. I’ve heard Trent Staggs. I’ve heard John Curtis,” Jorgensen said, referring to the mayor of Riverton and 3rd District congressman, respectively. Curtis and Wilson are both fixtures at Republican events, he noted.

Though Wilson is the first to launch an exploratory committee, former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said in February that he was thinking about running. A representative for state Attorney General Sean Reyes has said many were pressuring him to run as well.

Wilson told AP on Thursday that his decision to consider a primary challenge has little to do with presidential politics or Romney’s impeachment votes. However, he emphasized his background as a native Utahn and his support for Trump to draw a contrast with the Senator, who was born in Michigan, served as governor in Massachusetts and has said he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020.

“I’m going to do what I have done every election cycle: I will vote for the Republican nominee. I have in the past, and I will again. I think that’s what’s best for our country,” Wilson said.

He declined to say whether he intends to support Trump’s 2024 bid or seek his endorsement.

Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said polling shows Romney remains popular with moderate Republicans but less so among conservatives.

In a potential primary, he said, “The space that’s more wide open is to the right.”

Wilson, who grew up with 11 siblings in Kaysville, was first elected to Utah’s House in 2010 and has been Speaker his last three terms. Throughout his tenure, he has focused on spurring development, cutting taxes and confronting environmental challenges facing the Great Salt Lake.

He has satisfied conservatives by supporting restrictions on abortion and transgender youth health care and participation in sports. On other issues he has forged a more moderate path, including changing the name of southern Utah’s Dixie State University to Utah Tech University and helping squash a 2020 push to formally rebuke Romney over the impeachment votes.

Like Romney, Wilson has criticized Biden on government spending and energy policy, earlier this year calling the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on pollution from power plants an “assault on our energy through rule making.”

“I think this is this is a sign of a very interesting election to come,” Perry, the political scientist, said of Wilson’s Thursday announcement.

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