Analysis: The Utah Senate Seat is Mitt Romney's To Lose

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Posted: Jan 03, 2018 10:25 AM
Analysis: The Utah Senate Seat is Mitt Romney's To Lose

As Cortney relayed yesterday, venerable Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah announced his decision not to seek re-election in 2018.  The timing of the octogenarian's statement was not random: His retirement video dropped on the very first day potential challengers were permitted under Utah law to formally declare their intent to gather signatures in order to appear on the ballot.  So after months of speculation and behind-the-scenes positioning, the seven-term incumbent finalized his decision -- which comes on the heels of a massive legislative accomplishment in tax reform, passage of which he helped quarterback as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.  

That die has now been cast, and the likeliest beneficiary of Hatch's move is former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  Whispers have swirled for some time that Romney was eyeing a Senate run, prompting reports of an intra-party struggle playing out wherein elements of Team Trump sought to woo Hatch to run again, as a means of blocking Romney.  Trump loyalists -- including the president himself -- view the former Massachusetts governor as an antagonist who's been sharply critical of Trump, especially throughout the 2016 election cycle.  Via The Atlantic's McKay Coppins, whose reporting on the Utah Senate internal skirmishes and tea leaves has been unsurpassed:

In an April interview with National Journal, Hatch said,  “If I could get a really outstanding person to run for my position, I might very well consider [retiring],” adding, “Mitt Romney would be perfect.” In private, Hatch went so far as to hand-deliver a memo to Romney laying out the reasons that he should run for his seat, according to someone with direct knowledge of the document. A spokesperson for Hatch declined to comment. By this past fall, sources close to both men were saying that a plan had been set in motion for Hatch to announce his retirement and for Romney to announce a campaign to replace him. Then, the White House got involved. Eager to keep his longtime adversary out of the Senate, the president went to work lobbying Hatch to run for another term. As the Washington Post detailed, Trump’s recent trip to Utah was largely choreographed with the aim of boosting Hatch’s standing with conservative voters, and convincing him not to let go of his Senate seat just yet. Speaking before a crowd of Utahns, Trump praised Hatch as the kind of “fighter” Republicans need in Washington now.  “We hope you will continue to serve your state and the country and the senate for a very long time to come,” Trump told him. The comment drew applause in the room—but in Utah’s political class it set off alarm bells. “I think he’s going to welch on Romney,” one prominent Republican in the state griped to me.

That story was published in late December, and had DC buzzing.  Was the heavily-rumored and allegedly carefully-planned handoff between Hatch and Romney about to be superseded by a freshly-"choreographed" boost from the White House to keep the state's senior Senator around?  A few weeks hence, Hatch has spurned Trump's overtures by confirming he will step aside, clearing the path for a man whom he's described as the "perfect" candidate to replace him.  How strong is Romney's hand moving forward?  Very.  He'll start with Hatch's full-throated endorsement (the effect of which may be slightly muted due to Hatch's low approval rating at home), along with the support of a wide network of power players in the Utah GOP (click that link and read some of those quotes).  He also enjoys massive popularity in his adoptive home state, where he's owned a home for years and is beloved for his exceptional work saving the 2002 Olympic games.  This gap is striking and illustrative of the mood of the Beehive State's conservative but Trump-skeptical electorate:


Coppins writes that many Utahans "believe a Senator Romney would provide a much-needed check on the president."  They may get their wish.  Here's a US Senate poll from late 2017 pitting Romney against a plausible Democratic opponent (which also showed Hatch winning by double digits, but by a much smaller margin):


The survey indicated Hatch would probably have secured re-election because the state is so red, but the incumbent was poised to lose independents by more than 30 points.  By contrast, Romney would attract the support of 94 percent of Utah Republicans, woo more than one-fifth of the state's Democrats, and carry independents by roughly 40 points.  Throw in his universal name recognition and deep coffers and he's undeniably the prohibitive favorite.  The last two years have reminded us on several occasions that there's no such thing as a totally sure bet in politics, but "Senator Mitt Romney" is far more likely than not at this stage, as he appears poised to romp through the primary and general.  And he's reacting to yesterday's news precisely the way you'd expect -- with the calmness and magnanimity of someone who knew it was coming, and knows what's coming next:


I'll leave you with two more points on this:  First, the Bannonite wing of the GOP is dead set against Romney, but their influence is extremely limited in Utah, a state in which Trump garnered just 14 percent of the GOP caucus vote (finishing third out of three).  Utah's Republican governor also blasted Steve Bannon's religiously-tinged attacks against Romney, and that was before Bannon's disastrous candidate lost an unloseable race in another crimson state.  Bannon's stock is way down, and justifiably so.  Second, I've already seen lefty Twitter starting to grumble about how Romney is only "Never Trump" on a rhetorical level, and would vote for much of Trump's agenda.  This is a common, and profoundly stupid, attack that's frequently leveled by cynical liberals against Trump-suspicious conservative lawmakers.  

Calling out Trump for his embarrassing excesses and unpresidential conduct does not and should require Republicans to abandon Republican ideas (that's why we have a slew of Trump-appointed conservative federal judges and a new tax law).  The notion that the only "correct" or meaningful way to oppose Trump from within the GOP is to vote like a resistance-minded Democrat is preposterous.  People who advance this critique aren't doing so from a position of "country over party" devotion to democratic institutions.  They're doing so out of cheap partisanship or personal zealotry.  This summary of the relevant dynamics has it exactly right:

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