Washington • Mitt Romney is set to announce on Friday his run for the Senate seat from Utah, and if he wins, he’ll become a junior senator low on the totem pole of an institution built on seniority.
While already a super star in the Republican Party as its 2012 flag-bearer, a freshman Sen. Romney won’t have the pull to nab a committee chairmanship or leadership spot. And if a Democratic wave hits, Republicans might find themselves in the minority, putting a potential Sen. Romney in an even more less-influential spot.
But that may not matter.
Romney, should he win, will enter the Senate with an oversized megaphone as one of the most well-known Republicans, able to garner attention for every word he utters or action he takes.
“He comes in with a stature that the overwhelming majority of senators do not have,” says Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and a CNN contributor.
“Whenever he gives a speech on the floor, or asks questions in a committee hearing, that’s going to bring more attention,” Heye adds. “When he does a Sunday show, or any other interview for that matter, that’s going to bring more attention to it than just being a junior senator of a particular state.”
That’s the way it was with Hillary Clinton when she was the junior senator from New York.
The former first lady captured more attention than any of the new class of senators and found a scrum of reporters constantly waiting for her. Her outsized influence helped her pass legislation and grab the spotlight for her causes, such as helping the victims and rescue workers after the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Romney won’t have the seniority clout that Sen. Orrin Hatch has accumulated over four decades in the chamber. Hatch, who is not seeking re-election, is the Senate president pro tempore because he’s the most veteran Republican in the Senate. He also chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and sits on the Judiciary Committee, which he formerly led.
Romney, if he wins, wouldn’t have the tenure to nab a chairmanship, but he could run for a leadership post, though those are usually reserved for more senior members.
Either way, as a former GOP nominee for president, Romney isn’t expected to be a back-bencher.
“The beauty of the Senate is that it’s up to each senator as to whether they make a mark — or not,” said a senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid take on a possible Sen. Romney. “It’s completely up to them. This is a body of 100 where any single senator can disrupt or lead. Given Mitt Romney’s breadth of experience, it’s fair to expect he’d be engaged and work to lead on issues he believes are important to Utah and the nation.”
Romney’s draw might be hyped even more if he continues to be a harsh critic of President Donald Trump, whom he called a “phony” and a “fraud” during the 2016 campaign and of whose policies and tweets Romney has been critical.
Friends who have spoken to Romney in the lead-up to the announcement have said that he does plan to continue to speak up about Trump in the Senate race and if he wins. But he doesn’t plan to be a one-note senator. At some point, he’ll have to work with the White House.
About half of Utahns approve of Trump’s performance while in office, but he’s not a popular figure in the state.
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a Democrat who is also running for the Senate seat, said this week that she welcomed Romney to the race but dubbed him a “hand-picked candidate of the Washington establishment.”
“Utah families deserve a Utahn as their senator, not a Massachusetts governor who thinks of our state as his vacation home,” she said in a statement.
Romney, who was born in Michigan and served as governor of Massachusetts, has lived in Utah since 2013.
In a January poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Romney was supported by 64 percent of voters questioned compared to 19 percent for Wilson.
Jason Perry, the executive director of the Hinckley Institute, says that should Romney win the seat, he won’t be starting out as a nobody.
“On the organizational chart Romney will be a freshman senator,” Perry said. “But in terms of impact and influence, he will have more power than any freshman senator we have seen in many years. Mitt Romney will not need to spend time making a name for himself in the Senate.”