On Wednesday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney announced that he would not run for re-election in 2024. On the surface, the electoral impact of Romney’s decision is minimal: his seat is expected to remain in Republican hands. But it’s still notable because it represents the departure of one of the few remaining Republican senators who had a moderate voting record and/or who openly opposed former President Donald Trump.
The Senate, of course, was a second (or rather third) career for Romney. After a successful business career during which he co-founded Bain Capital, Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 – part of the Bay State’s long love affair with moderate Republican governors. He ran for president twice and won the Republican nomination in 2012, losing to then-President Barack Obama in the general election.
It was the last time the Republican Party chose a presidential candidate who wasn’t Trump. Since 2016, Republican voters have turned against Romney’s establishment-aligned Republicanism and embraced Trump’s brash populism. In 2018, a year that saw a large number of moderate or anti-Trump Republicans leave Congress, Romney bucked the general trend by getting elected to the Utah Senate (where many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Congress). – including Romney himself – have made the local GOP more skeptical of Trump than most). Since then, he has spoken out loud and clear against the party’s new direction. Most notably, he voted to convict Trump in both of his impeachment trials.
Romney also developed a moderate voting record, breaking with his party’s right wing in votes ranging from confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to rescinding Trump’s emergency declaration to fund the border wall. Romney’s DW-NOMINATE score — a measure of ideology based on roll-call votes, where 1 represents most conservative and -1 represents most liberal — is 0.288, making him more moderate than all senators current Republicans except three.
Both groups of Republicans – Trump opponents and ideological moderates – are now endangered species, and Romney’s departure will lead to further culling of the herd. Of the 17 Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump in either of his impeachments, only six are still in Congress, including Romney. And the number of Republicans in the Senate with DW-NOMINATE scores below 0.300 is at its lowest level in at least 40 years.
Romney’s anti-Trump and moderate record may have indirectly contributed to his decision to retire, as it made him relatively unpopular with Republican voters in Utah. According to an Aug. 7-14 poll by Dan Jones & Associates, only 56 percent of registered Republican voters in Utah approved of Romney’s job performance. That might not sound too bad, but among members of your own party, 56 percent is a pretty mediocre approval rating. (In contrast, 81% of registered Republican voters nationally have a favorable view of Trump, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.)
Much like former Sen. Jeff Flake, a prominent Trump critic, did in 2018, Romney may have declined to run for office because he was afraid of losing in the Republican primary. The same poll looked at a hypothetical primary matchup, and Romney received 45 percent support among Republicans. This is quite anemic for an outgoing president, used to waltzing to re-nomination.
On the other hand, no other candidate in the poll received more than 7 percent, and only 27 percent said they would vote for another unnamed candidate. Additionally, the poll found that Romney’s approval rating among Republicans was rising; in May, only 40 percent approved of his performance. So Romney’s path to re-nomination is likely clearer today than it has been in some time, making the timing of the announcement curious. So maybe we should take Romney at his word when he cited his age as a factor in his retirement video. (Romney is 76 and would have been 83 at the end of a possible second term.)
So what’s next for Utah’s Class I Senate seat? Romney’s retirement is unlikely to lead to a competitive general election next fall: Even though Utah has shifted toward Democrats in the Trump era, it is still red enough to have voted for him in more than 20 percentage points in 2020, and Democrats didn’t do it. has won a statewide election in the Beehive State since 1996. (That’s right, anti-Trump independent Evan McMullin lost to Republican Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 by just 10.4 points after Democrats stood aside and nominated no one in order to give McMullin a better chance. But, on the other hand, anti-Trump independent Evan McMullin still lost to Republican Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 by 10.4 points, even after Democrats stood aside and nominated no one in order to give McMullin a better chance of winning.
The election to watch will therefore be the Republican primary on June 25, more particularly to find out whether the party’s candidate will be more conservative and/or pro-Trump than Romney. So far, it seems the answer is yes; the field of current and potential candidates lacks someone as iconoclastic as Romney. State House Speaker Brad Wilson, who has already formed an exploratory committee, presents himself as a “conservative champion” and introduced a legislative resolution in 2020 honoring Trump after his first impeachment. However, it might be the most palatable option for old-school Republicans; a second candidate, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, attacked Romney for supporting “consciousness-raising” and impeaching Trump. And Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who served as co-chair of Trump’s reelection campaign in the state and tried to overturn the 2020 election results, is also a presumptive nominee.
But there’s still plenty of time for a Romney-style candidate to launch. Utah still has a fair number of Trump-skeptical Republicans — for example, former state Rep. Becky Edwards, a Republican who voted for President Biden and narrowly lost. a special primary election for Utah’s 2nd District. It is possible that one of them will fall out of the Senate primaries if the conservative/pro-Trump vote is split between several candidates. But of course, none of the alternatives have the notoriety or financial advantage of Romney. So there’s no doubt that his retirement is a blow to Republicans who don’t like what’s happening to their party.
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