Mitt Romney explains why he didn’t endorse Mike Lee in 2022 in new biography

“Maybe he just can’t stand being in my shadow,” Romney says of Lee in McKay Coppins’ upcoming biography “Romney: A Reckoning.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney speaks at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. A new book by McKay Coppins, titled "Romney: A Reckoning," shared details about Romney thoughts on Utah politics.

Sen. Mitt Romney was deeply annoyed when his fellow Utah senator, Mike Lee, went on television to beg for Romney’s endorsement in his 2022 reelection campaign.

At the time, and just a month ahead of Election Day, the state’s senior U.S. senator was locked in a tighter-than-anticipated race against independent challenger Evan McMullin and used a guest spot on Tucker Carlson’s show to implore Romney to come to his aid.

That revelation is contained in the forthcoming biography, “Romney, A Reckoning,” due to be released next week. Author McKay Coppins worked closely with Romney on the memoir, and The Salt Lake Tribune was given access to an advance copy.

“Please get on board,” Lee asked of Romney at the time. “Help me win reelection.”

Romney thought McMullin’s challenge to Lee was a long shot, predicting the incumbent Republican would triumph by 10 percentage points. (Lee wound up winning by about that much.)

Last March, Romney said publicly he would withhold an endorsement in the Lee-McMullin contest because he considered the two men “friends.” Romney revealed to Coppins that he had met McMullin only a handful of times, but he was happy to use that as an excuse to stay on the sidelines.

As Election Day crept closer, polls showed Lee’s comfortable lead over McMullin was shrinking, and the pressure on Romney to endorse his GOP colleague grew. Coppins says party leaders started lobbying Romney behind the scenes to back Lee, but he refused.

Carson Jorgensen, chairman of the Utah GOP at the time, says he reached out to Romney several times to encourage him to support Lee but never spoke with Romney.

“I wanted to dang sure make the party stance clear,” Jorgensen told The Tribune, “and that he should be backing the Republican candidate in the race.”

According to Coppins’ book, Romney was puzzled by Lee’s desperate pleas for his support during the 2022 campaign. The two men did not have a close relationship, and Romney was unwilling to support his colleague for several reasons.

(Screenshot via Fox News) Sen. Mike Lee during a Tuesday evening appearance with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. During the interview, Lee begged Sen. Mitt Romney to support his campaign against independent Evan McMullin.

Lee spent months, for example, trying to help Donald Trump remain in the White House even though he had lost the 2020 election. Romney felt those efforts contradicted Lee’s self-professed fealty to the Constitution. Romney muses in the biography that Lee possibly had convinced himself that Trump would reward those efforts with an appointment to the Supreme Court.

Instead of assisting Romney with the major legislation he helped craft, Lee was routinely opposed to the measures. In the biography, Romney points to Lee’s opposition to legislation to make the U.S. more competitive with China and a gun control bill after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas.

In another example from the book, Romney reopened negotiations on the bipartisan infrastructure bill when he realized funding for a water project in Utah was inadvertently omitted. Lee was absent from those negotiations, the book says says, but did have time to deliver an hourlong speech opposing the measure as an “orgiastic convulsion of federal spending.”

Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Romney’s remarks.

According to the book, Romney suggested Lee’s attitude toward him may have been motivated by jealousy because Romney has a higher profile in Congress, even though Lee is Utah’s senior senator. Romney often makes national news when he comments on an issue, and asserts Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seeks him out first on anything related to Utah.

He’s also taller than Lee.

“Maybe,” Romney reportedly told a colleague, “he (Lee) just can’t stand being in my shadow.”

Votes to remove Trump

In January 2020, Romney broke with Republicans, voting to convict President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial. He was the first U.S. senator in history to vote to convict a president from the same political party.

Even though he was roundly praised for that vote, it did irreparable damage to his standing among Utah Republicans.

The night after his vote, according to the biography, Romney flew to Salt Lake City and met with GOP legislative leaders at the Utah Capitol so they “could yell at him in person.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather in support of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, after he voted to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power. The Utah senator was the only Republican to vote guilty on the first article of impeachment.

In a closed-door meeting, Romney was blistered by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, for “his lifelong disloyalty” to conservative issues, which included flip-flopping on abortion and reversing course on support for Trump. According to the book, Schultz also complained that Romney did not invite him to participate in a campaign event held in Weber County.

“I didn’t know who you were,” Romney reportedly replied.

Schultz says he remembers the meeting well, but his anger at Romney wasn’t solely motivated by his impeachment vote. Schultz says shortly after Romney was elected to the Senate, he met with legislative leaders and promised he would not work against Trump’s administration.

“He said he was not going to be a Jeff Flake,” Schultz told The Tribune, referring to the former U.S. senator from Arizona who was highly critical of Trump. In Schultz’s eyes, Romney’s vote to convict Trump broke that promise.

“I was upset. There are multiple Mitt Romneys, and I was wondering which one we were talking to. The one who was pro-life or the one who was pro-choice?” Schultz said.

“He’s a liar,” Schultz added. “He does not stand on an issue.”

The Utah lawmaker said that Romney’s impeachment vote came at a time when Republican leaders were trying to work with the Trump administration on public lands issues, and his vote damaged that effort.

Schultz took issue with the assertion he was not invited to the Weber County event, insisting he was deliberately told by Romney’s campaign not to attend. A representative for Romney could not be reached for comment.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney in one of the meetings trying to put the 2002 Olympics back together again.

Schultz said he was surprised to learn the story about the post-impeachment hearing was even included in the book.

“I’m honored,” he said, “that I can help him sell some books.”

Romney’s 2018 U.S. Senate campaign

In early 2017, Romney was invited to a meeting with then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was thinking about retiring and wanted Romney to run as his successor. Hatch was not the first to make that suggestion, though. In the biography, Romney says former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt suggested the same thing a year earlier, but Romney said he still harbored bad memories about his unsuccessful 1994 run in Massachusetts for U.S. Senate.

On the campaign trail, Romney became alarmed by how politically extreme some pockets of the Utah Republican faithful had become. At an event staged by the Iron County Republican Party, the opening prayer was offered by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy. His prayer, according to Coppins’ book, went on for five minutes and implored God to enact justice for perceived sins committed by the federal government. When finished, Bundy received a standing ovation.

Romney reportedly wanted to avoid being associated with the more extreme elements of the GOP and took great pains to steer clear of being photographed with Bundy during the event. At one point, Romney recalled, his aides saw Bundy approaching them down a hallway and shuffled him into the nearest door to escape. It turned out to be a closet.

Romney vs. Huntsman

As Romney warmed to the idea of running for Senate again, he learned that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was also interested in running for Hatch’s seat. Romney’s relationship with the Huntsmans had soured when he was tapped to salvage Utah’s 2002 Winter Olympics. Huntsman also wanted the job.

The book reports Romney met with Jon Huntsman Sr., hoping to put aside any remaining hard feelings.

“If Jon Jr. wants to be senator, he can have it,” Romney reportedly said, according to the biography.

FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2017 file photo, Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Russia, looks on during a ceremonial swearing-in event with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Sin Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Romney was told Huntsman Jr. was no longer interested in the Senate, having recently been confirmed as Trump’s ambassador to Russia.

In the biography, Romney says Trump offered him the Russia ambassadorship after being passed over for secretary of state, but he declined. Romney kept that detail to himself.

Author McKay Coppins will discuss his book, “Romney: A Reckoning,” during an event at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Nov. 2. Tickets are available at this link.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, who is chair of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors, is a brother of Jon Huntsman Jr. and son of Jon Sr.

Update, Oct. 20, 8:30 a.m. • This story has been updated to clarify attributions to the biography.