Mitt Romney’s has been one of the best-known names in politics — not just in Utah but also across the nation — for decades. On Wednesday, the Republican senator announced that he won’t run for reelection, likely marking the end of his career in elected office.
Romney is a businessman who commanded the spotlight on the Utah political scene when he took over the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. After a stint as governor of Massachusetts, and a couple of unsuccessful presidential runs, he returned to the Beehive State, where he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2018.
Moving from state government on the East Coast to the national stage and then to Utah, Romney has evolved over time in various positions of power, and so have the voters who put him there. Together, these events have defined him as a politician.
First foray into politics
Turning from business to politics isn’t an independent venture — it’s a family tradition. The Romney patriarch, George Romney, after a career as an auto industry executive, served as Michigan’s governor, then campaigned for president and lost, while Mitt’s mother, Lenore Romney, attempted her own Senate run.
After a decade helming the private equity investment firm Bain Capital, Romney mounted his own Senate bid in Massachusetts. He won the Republican primary with more than 80% of the votes and faced the incumbent, Democratic icon Sen. Ted Kennedy, in the 1994 general election.
Romney lost by 17 percentage points and reportedly told his brother, “I never want to run for something again unless I can win.”
2002 Winter Olympics
As the scandal-scarred organization responsible for putting together the Salt Lake City Olympics languished, Utah leaders called on Romney to essentially rescue the Games.
He became the public face for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and was often associated with the Games’ resounding success. Although some committee members disputed whether he deserved as much credit as he received, Romney used the position as a political springboard.
Later that year, Romney ran unopposed in the Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial primary.
He told voters before the general election that he was a “moderate” and “not a partisan Republican.” At the polls, he beat state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien with 50% of the vote and led Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
During his stint as governor, he became known for running the state like a CEO along with his efforts to increase health coverage. After inheriting a potential $650 million shortfall and a projected $3 billion deficit for the upcoming year, Romney made drastic cuts to the state’s budget. And before “Obamacare,” there was “Romneycare,” which required nearly all Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance coverage or face tax penalties.
As his time as governor wrapped up, Romney set his sights on higher office. He launched a presidential exploratory committee in 2007 on his last day in the governor’s mansion.
Even before he entered the contest, when his candidacy was a mere rumor, questions arose about his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speaking at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas in December 2007, Romney said that no one should be elected — nor rejected — for his or her religious beliefs.
He ultimately lost the Republican nod to then-Sen. John McCain, from Arizona.
On his second try in 2012, Romney became the first Latter-day Saint to head a major party’s presidential ticket in a year that came to be known as the “Mormon moment.” He squared off against incumbent President Barack Obama in the fall election.
Much of the criticism he faced both throughout and after the campaign centered on remarks he made about people with lower income and Americans of color. In comments at a private fundraiser captured on video, he characterized 47% of Americans as government-dependent, seeing themselves as “victims,” and not willing to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When he lost by 4 percentage points to Obama, Romney told donors the result came after the president gave “extraordinary financial gifts” to “certain members of his base coalition,” eventually speaking specifically about Hispanic voters.
Multiple Republicans criticized the sentiment.
Back in Utah
A half-dozen years later, a Republican was back in the White House by 2018, when Romney launched his second Senate campaign, this time in Utah. But Romney had a contentious history with the new president, Donald Trump.
Romney hadn’t supported Trump during his campaign. He called him a “phony” in a highly publicized 2016 speech at the University of Utah and refused to vote for him. The former governor’s name was nonetheless floated for secretary of state in Trump’s administration, and although they continued to exchange jabs during the president’s term, Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement shortly after he filed to run for Senate.
Romney vs. Trump
Two days before he was sworn into the U.S. Senate, Romney wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying Trump’s “conduct over the past two years ... is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.” The publication called it Romney’s “put-up-or-shut-up moment.”
Romney was the sole Republican senator to vote to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial and the first senator ever to cast a guilty vote against an impeached president from his own party. He was also the first Republican senator to congratulate President Joe Biden on his victory in 2020.
Shortly after rioting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to stop the certification of that election, Romney spoke on the Senate floor, calling it an “insurrection, incited by the president of the United States.” Romney again voted to convict Trump in an impeachment trial over the then-president’s actions that day.
When the senator showed up to speak at the Utah Republican Party convention a few months later, he was greeted with boos from many of the more than 2,100 delegates.
In the face of a decline in Romney’s popularity over his six-year term, GOP candidates began entering the 2024 Senate race last spring. Politicos speculated for months whether the 76-year-old Romney would run again.
Romney announced Wednesday that he had decided to retire — a choice made months ago, Romney’s biographer McKay Coppins wrote in an excerpt of his yet-to-be-released book.
“At the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-80s,” Romney said in a video on social media. “Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in.”