Trump-Critic Romney Seen as Midterm Outlier for GOP
If Mitt Romney does indeed run for the U.S. Senate this year, his long-held -- and sharply stated -- anti-Trump sentiments could place him on an island far removed from fellow Republican candidates. But that isolation likely won’t handicap him either.
Even as the GOP prepares for a midterm election in which the traditional challenges facing the party in power figure to be exacerbated by Donald Trump's low approval rating and self-inflicted controversies, few Republicans see a path to electoral success that involves excoriating the president. Trump's national ratings may be low, but he remains popular among conservative voters, especially those who show up for primaries. In many states around the country, GOP candidates have been endearing themselves to Trump.
So, when Romney this week condemned his alleged remarks about certain immigrant nations – calling the words "antithetical to American values" — it was noteworthy because most of Trump's Republican denouncers are either comfortably outside of Congress or on their way out.
"So far everyone is trying to get as close to the president as possible," said one GOP Senate campaign operative. "In almost all of the races, everyone has been angling to be the most Trump-esque."
Indeed, party candidates aiming for U.S. Senate seats in Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia and other key states the president won are sounding much more positive notes about Trump. Arizona Rep. Martha McSally is considered the establishment choice for the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, but she launched her campaign as an ally of the president. "Like our president, I'm tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses," she said in her opening ad.
Flake, a top Trump critic, acknowledged he wouldn't be able to win a primary in this environment. His impending retirement has freed him up to speak out further against Trump, but few of his GOP colleagues are following suit. On Wednesday, he gave a scathing rebuke on the Senate floor of the president's treatment of the press, comparing his tactics to those of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. (But he spoke to a mostly empty chamber.)
Romney's positioning isn't surprising. He called candidate Trump a "phony" and a "fraud" during the 2016 campaign. And while he and the president-elect briefly made amends while the 2012 presidential nominee was under consideration for secretary of state, Romney has been a vocal critic since then. "What he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn," Romney said of Trump's response to racial violence in Charlottesville over the summer. But when the former Massachusetts governor spoke out against the president in a tweet on Monday, it was the first time he's done so since Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch announced his retirement, opening the door to the seven-term lawmaker’s seat.
Romney, who chaired the Olympic Games in Utah in 2002, is expected to run to succeed Hatch, even if he has declined to publicly announce his intentions. In a speech to business leaders at the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, he focused mostly on economics, but offered some insights on morality: "The character, the culture of America is what has made us the powerhouse of the world economically, with our strength as well as our goodness."
Of course, the uniqueness of the Utah electorate affords Romney liberties in speaking out that candidates in other states wouldn't enjoy. While Trump won there, he only garnered plurality support, as independent candidate (and native Utahan) Evan McMullin siphoned off 21 percent of the vote. Romney, meanwhile, is popular there and has particular appeal as a member of the LDS community, which is powerful in the state. Both Hatch and fellow Utah Sen. Mike Lee defended Romney last month against Steve Bannon’s attacks on his Morman faith. Republicans anticipate he would sail through a primary, and then through the general election.
"Many of these other [GOP] candidates just aren't in a position to antagonize some of their base voters, many of whom see the president's critics as more problematic than some of the president's words or deeds," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Romney's presidential campaign. "Romney doesn't have the same checklist of considerations, given that he has a concrete base of support in Utah and doesn't have re-election concerns serving as his political lodestar."
That's why his playbook would be more of an outlier than a roadmap for Republicans running in 2018. "I wouldn't advise other Republican candidates to follow Mitt's lead in terms of how he's approaching the president," said party strategist Alex Conant, who served as the communications director for Marco Rubio's 2016 campaign. "Trump's approval amongst Republicans is still high enough that it's hard to run against the president."
Romney's approach could also make things a bit awkward for Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who happens to be his niece. (It has been reported that Trump urged McDaniel to no longer use her maiden name.) When asked about her uncle during a recent interview with Fox News, McDaniel insisted that she doesn't think he would run as an anti-Trump leader.
"My advice to any Republican running is: spend your time focusing on the Democrats," she said. "Stop focusing on the Republicans. ... I always say, if you have a problem in your family, don't go on ‘Jerry Springer.’ And this president is doing a great job, and we should be supporting him."
As chairwoman of the RNC, McDaniel's loyalty would lie more with the president than with her uncle, who were on opposing sides during the Alabama special election. The RNC and Trump backed Roy Moore, while Romney said Moore "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. ... No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity."
While many Senate Republicans were relieved at Moore's loss, most have remained allied with the president. After the passage of tax reform in December, GOP lawmakers heaped praised on him at a White House event. Hatch, a longtime leader on tax matters, said he loved Trump and hoped he and his colleagues could help "make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever."
Romney himself praised the tax bill, which raised the questions regarding the limits of standing up to a president whose agenda is intertwined with the party’s priorities.
Republican strategists figure that candidates are likely to re-evaluate support for Trump after their primaries, depending on what the president's ratings and the economy look like. And while some fear Romney's outspokenness could be a drain on a party that is craving more unity, others see it as necessary.
"I think Trump's GOP feels unwelcoming to a lot of suburban, higher-educated voters, and having Romney run as a Republican sends a signal we remain a big tented party; that it's OK to have concerns about Trump and still be a Republican," says Conant. "The day when people who share Mitt Romney's worldview don't feel like they're welcome in the GOP is the day we stop being national party."