Last month, Mike Lee’s campaign made a big to-do about getting the endorsements of 48 of the 49 Republican senators in his race against independent Evan McMullin.
It would not even have been noteworthy — Republicans are always supposed to endorse Republicans — except for the one name that was missing: Lee’s fellow Utahn Sen. Mitt Romney.
Back in March, Romney told reporters he would likely not endorse in the race.
“I don’t think endorsements make any difference in a race to speak of,” Romney said. “People in the race are my friends. I usually try and avoid situations where they’ve been friends. I may endorse and I may not, but I really haven’t given it any thought at this point.”
But all of that was before Lee won his June primary, becoming the party’s official nominee, and Lee’s decision to tout the Senate endorsements shined a bright spotlight on Romney standing on the sidelines and once again made Romney a target for incredulous Republican senators.
“We should not have to be worried about Utah in any way,” one anonymous Republican senator told The Federalist. “I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing, but it’s not going over well, particularly with the [senators] who are up for chairmanships.”
McMullin’s team pounced on Romney’s non-endorsement, saying in a fundraising email that his “silence is deafening.”
“It seems Romney and the majority of Utahns know Lee has proven divisive and ineffective in Washington — and it’s time to replace him in the Senate,” the solicitation reads.
So what do we make of the whole situation? Talking to numerous people in both Romney and Lee camps in recent days, several fascinating storylines emerge.
For Lee, it may be easier not to have Romney’s endorsement, since the junior senator is so reviled by Lee’s Trumpist GOP base — given Romney’s two votes to impeach President Donald Trump and his outspoken criticism of the former president and his politics.
If Lee wanted to shore up his support among more moderate Republicans, Romney’s support might help. Strategically, Lee’s camp may simply not think it needs those votes.
But Kirk Jowers, a long-time Romney political advisor who is now CEO of ADDAX Overland, sees this as a rare instance where an endorsement might have made a significant difference.
“McMullin keeps wrapping himself in that, ‘I’m going to be just like Mitt, we’re going to have two Mitts back there,’” Jowers said. “And if Mitt said, ‘The guy I want to work with is Mike Lee, we’re doing some great work … vote for Mike,’ I think it would move [the polls] several points, to be honest, as well as quite a bit of money.”
Surely it would help make Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s life easier if it at least appeared that there was some team unity and everyone was working together to re-take the Senate.
From Romney’s vantage point, an endorsement would have been easy and politically advantageous. Joining hands with Lee might help mend fences with conservative Republicans (but probably not much). It could also put Lee in a position where he would feel obligated to return the favor, a boost Romney would need if he draws a serious credible primary challenger, like former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in 2024.
Given the benefit for Romney, why not make an endorsement?
Well, it’s important to note that Lee did not endorse Romney’s 2018 campaign and only backed his 2012 presidential run in March 2012, very late in the process. Former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch had endorsed Romney five months earlier.
I also believe it is tied up, at least a little, in Lee’s enabling of Trump — comparing the former president to Book of Mormon hero Captain Moroni during the 2020 campaign and then promoting election fraud conspiracists Sidney Powell and John Eastman, two of the leading purveyors of The Big Lie.
It may also tell us something about Romney’s political future. Surely, he has seen how the Trump wing of the party operates. He has seen them take down Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and attack any other Republican who stood up to the president. Romney has to know they’re coming for him.
If Romney isn’t taking simple steps to repair his image there are those I talked to who think it could mean one of two things: One, he’s not going to run for re-election (who could blame him?); or, two, if he runs he will do it as an independent. Think Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won re-election after losing a primary in 2010.
In many ways, the split between Lee and Romney is a microcosm of the divide in today’s Republican Party, your father’s traditional GOP in Romney and those in Lee who have been converted to Trump loyalists. And it creates an opening for McMullin to try to drive a wedge deep into that fissure.
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