Romney, now a GOP maverick, undecided on future in politics

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) says he hasn’t decided whether to run for reelection in 2024, when he could be on the same ballot as Donald Trump if the former president seeks another bid for the White House.

Romney has cast several high-profile votes putting him at odds with the GOP base — including two votes to convict Trump on impeachment charges. He became the first senator in history to convict a president of his own party in an impeachment trial in 2020.

Just last week, Romney was one of only three Republicans to vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. 

Trump is less popular among Republicans in Utah than other states but still handily beat President Biden there by 20 points, 58.1 percent to 37.6 percent, in 2020.   

Romney told The Hill that he hasn’t given much thought to running for a second term.

“I’m going to cross that bridge down the road. I haven’t given a lot of attention yet,” he said following his vote for Jackson, the first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. The other two GOP “yes” votes came from Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

Romney, 75, hasn’t spent much energy on fundraising. His Senate campaign account reported $473,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2021 — only $215,000 more than what he reported after winning his Senate seat in 2018.  

Romney could face a challenge from Republican state Attorney General Sean Reyes, who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.  

Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) may also make a bid for Romney’s seat.

“I think that’s why he is giving this some pause. He will have a tough race with the Republican nomination process,” said Richard Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Brigham Young University.  

Davis said that Romney’s vote for Jackson, whom the senator praised as “a person of honor,” would likely be an issue in a future primary.  

Romney is considered unlikely to win the Republican nomination at the state party convention, which is dominated by activists, so he would likely have to collect enough petition signatures to bypass the convention and advance to a primary.  

Political experts and strategists say a primary election would provide more favorable ground to Romney than a convention, pointing to his performance in 2018.  

Romney narrowly lost to state Rep. Mike Kennedy at the 2018 state convention but went on to handily win that year’s primary.  

Davis said both Chaffetz and Reyes would be tough primary rivals for Romney.

“Either one of them would be a formidable opponent for Romney within the Republican Party because he has made himself persona non grata with many of the conservative Republicans,” Davis. “He’s actually more popular with Democrats and independents than he is with Republicans right now. So getting past the Republican primary would be a tough one.” 

Davis said Romney could run and win as an independent or as a centrist candidate for the United Utah Party, which formed in 2017.   

Romney’s uneasy relationship with Utah conservatives was underscored by his decision not to endorse fellow Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who is running for reelection this year.  

“I don’t think endorsements make any difference in a race to speak of,” Romney told reporters. “People in the race are my friends. I usually try and avoid situations where they’ve been friends. I may endorse and I may not, but I really haven’t given it any thought at this point.” 

Romney was personally recruited to the Senate by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2017 and has become an influential member after only three years in the chamber.

He helped negotiate last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment Act and this month hammered out a compromise $10 billion COVID-19 relief bill with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

Few senators of either party have résumés as impressive as Romney’s. He amassed a fortune as the co-founder of Bain Capital before becoming elected governor of Massachusetts, where he enacted sweeping health care reform that later became the template for the Affordable Care Act.  

He ran a credible campaign for president in 2008 and won the GOP nomination for president in 2012, though he lost to then-President Obama by 4 percent of the popular vote and more than 100 electoral votes.

Romney is now winning plaudits for identifying Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” in 2012, when he was the Republican nominee, an assessment that Obama scoffed at in 2020 but now looks prescient. 

That could give Romney, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a strong rationale to run for another term as the United States continues to figure out its role and relationship in the rapidly changing international political environment.  

U.S. leadership of NATO has become more important since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and U.S. relations with China, a rising global power, appear as unpredictable as ever.  

“If he runs for reelection in a couple years, I got a good slogan for him: ‘He was right about Russia,’” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.  

Weber said he thinks Romney will run for another term given his deep commitment to public service, his interest in foreign affairs and the new challenges facing the nation in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  

“Mitt Romney is incredibly dedicated to public service,” said Weber, who described it as a “very deep, multigenerational family commitment.”

“I guess I would be surprised if he would hang it up and just go back to private life,” Weber said.  

A Deseret News-Hinkley Institute of Politics poll published last month showed that Romney enjoys a strong job approval rating in the state, with 51 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of unaffiliated voters giving him a positive rating. 

Weber said that while Trump’s critics in the GOP “are a little bit marginalized,” it doesn’t pose an insurmountable obstacle to Romney winning a second term.

“I think that’s an overstated phenomenon,” he said, of the view that Trump’s critics don’t have a promising future in Republican politics.  

Davis, the BYU political science professor emeritus, said Romney’s three years in Washington have been “enormously impactful.”  

“He has become sort of the undesirable conscience of the Republican Party. They don’t want this conscience, but he is it. To vote twice to convict the president of his own party is just something nobody else in Senate history has done,” he said. “It’s highly unusual.” 

James Curry, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, noted that Trump isn’t as popular with Republicans in Utah as he is in other states.  

In the 2016 election, Trump failed to win more than 50 percent of the state’s vote in the general election. Evan McMullin, the independent candidate that year, won 21 percent of the vote, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won 27 percent, holding Trump to 45 percent.  

“I think he actually has a better chance of reelection than the conventional wisdom has been,” he said. “Utah Republicans on the whole are less favorable towards Trump. 

“Moderate LDS voters who register Republicans, who are pretty loyal Republicans, are pretty uncomfortable with Trump’s brand of Republican politics, with the perceived moral character of the candidate,” he said, referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “LDS Republicans tend to be pretty pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, and you have a candidate in Trump who made [his] signature issues to be on the opposite side of that.”