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Robert Gehrke: What should we make of Mitt Romney’s rebuke by GOP delegates?

Hate is a powerful motivator in today’s Republican Party, and it may be enough to unseat Utah’s favorite son.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney faces a hostile crowd during the Utah Republican Party’s 2021 Organizing Convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, May 1, 2021, where he was booed by Republican delegates numbering more than 1,900.

“Aren’t you embarrassed?”

Those were some of the first words Sen. Mitt Romney managed to spit out as a torrent of boos and catcalls poured down on him at the Utah Republican Convention on Saturday — and a fair question to ask today’s breed of Republicans.

Just a few years ago, he was the party’s Chosen One. Now he was being called “traitor” and delegates shouted that he should “go back to Massachusetts!”

“I understand that I have a few folks who don’t like me terribly much,” Romney said. “I’m sorry about that, but I express my mind as I believe is right and I express my conscience as I believe is right.”

That’s his first mistake. In today’s political climate, putting principles before party — as Romney did when he voted to convict President Donald Trump in two impeachment trials — is treason.

Trump, of course, delighted in Romney’s rebuke.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

“So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention,” Trump said in a statement released Monday. “They are among the earliest to have figured this guy out, a stone cold loser!”

The outrage directed at the senator should not have come as a surprise, but Romney seemed genuinely flummoxed, stumbling through his speech, citing his disagreement with Trump’s “character issues” before falling back on his resumé — Oh, hey, by the way, I was the nominee for president.

The outgoing party chairman had to step in and ask the rabble to show some respect.

Romney is, by no means, the first prominent politician to be dumbstruck by derisive delegates at a state convention.

Back in 2000, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch were nearly booed off the convention stage and heckled for being out-of-touch liberal sell-outs.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years,” the late pollster Dan Jones said at the time.

It wouldn’t be the last episode of rowdiness. In 2008, former Rep. Chris Cannon was jeered because he had shown the temerity to work with President George W. Bush on immigration reform.

There was Sen. Bob Bennett who was heckled and derided at the 2010 convention because of the passage of Obamacare and for having supported legislation attempting to stave off a catastrophic economic collapse.

And former Gov. Gary Herbert was booed by the party’s right wing the last time he appeared as a candidate in 2016.

There is a long tradition of convention-goers wanting to skin, cook and eat their own. Convention delegates are frequently the fieriest and fringiest factions in the party who carry a lot of clout at the convention, but disconnected from how the party’s mainstream votes in primaries.

Leavitt and Hatch, for example, got sent to primaries in 2000, but both won those primaries by huge margins, as did Herbert in 2016.

But then there are the Cannon and Bennett examples. Bennett was driven from office by his convention loss — the defeat that led to the signature-gathering path to the ballot — and Cannon lost his primary to Jason Chaffetz.

It’s true that a resolution to censure Romney for his votes against Trump failed by a 798-711 margin, shy of a majority.

Nonetheless, this anti-Romney rage feels like the more virulent strain — the Bennett-Cannon variety that can end a political career.

Here’s why: What we witnessed Saturday is a strong barometer of the unbridled fury of the GOP’s Trump wing. Hate is a powerful motivator, especially in politics, and in this instance seems unlikely to fade.

Part of what did in Bennett was the Tea Party backlash to Democrats running government. That’s the same situation we’re in now and, even if Republicans re-take the House in 2022, there is little reason to think the grudge Trump and his loyalists have toward Romney will subside by 2024.

The other difference between Leavitt and Hatch on one hand and Cannon and Bennett on the other is those first two ran against unknown, underfunded and uninspiring candidates.

Romney is already a wounded animal, and the wolves are circling. Chaffetz has said publicly he would be interested in running against Romney and don’t be surprised if Attorney General Sean Reyes takes an interest in the seat.

Can Romney heal the rift and win back support of his party? If he’s willing to weather the abuse and supplicate himself before the Trump wing of the party, maybe he can. But if that’s the cost, a better question might be: Why would he subject himself to that kind of degradation? Is it really worth it?

Or as Romney put it: “Aren’t you embarrassed?”

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