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Commentary: Mitt Romney could revive Mormon opposition to Donald Trump — and inspire a resistance

The question of where Mormons fit within mainstream conservatism looms large as pollsters and politicians seek to understand the shifting demographics of the region.

(AP Photo/Colin E. Braley, File) In this June 8, 2012, file photo, Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, walks alongside. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah on the tarmac of Salt Lake City International Airport, in Salt Lake City. Romney is considering a new career in Congress. Those who know the 70-year-old former Republican presidential nominee best expect him to announce plans to seek a suddenly vacant Utah Senate seat. Incumbent Orrin Hatch announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election this fall.

In 2016, Mitt Romney was heralded as a savior of the fledgling #NeverTrump movement of Republican resistance to their party’s nominee. Yet within weeks of the election, he was being mocked for that narrative’s stunning coup de grâce: Romney dining on Michelin-starred frog legs and vying to be Trump’s secretary of state.

A year later, though, Romney could once again put himself in the vanguard of GOP resistance to Trump. The announcement this week by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that he would not seek reelection this year may mean Romney runs for the seat instead. That could revive the Mormon wing of the anti-Trump movement -- which never quite coalesced in time to make a difference during the campaign but which could still cause Trump significant problems in Congress for the rest of his term.

Like Romney, who once lambasted Trump for running a “calculated” campaign on “racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, ... and violence,” Utah’s Republican senators and congressmen were vocal critics of Trump during the 2016 campaign. While Hatch was the most restrained with his rhetoric, Utah Republicans Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Mia Love readily demanded Trump end his campaign after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape. Stewart called Trump “our Mussolini,” while Love said she would not vote for her party’s nominee. Hatch lightly scolded Trump for his misogyny but refused to withdraw his support.

At the time, such moral posturing aligned with political incentives. Utah is 60 percent Mormon -- a demographic politically aligned with but morally opposed to Trump.

Mormon opposition to Trump is founded in a dispositional divergence. Trump’s ostentatious showmanship, grandiosity, vulgarity and brusqueness grated on a heavily Mormon electorate. Mormon scripture is a collection of allegories teaching that glorifying worldly possessions is depraved and will lead to ruinous, civilizational disaster. Additionally, Mormons abide by a code of conduct that prohibits swearing, drinking, smoking and premarital sex; therefore, Trump’s tales of womanizing -- and allegations of assault -- were viewed as particularly egregious in a culture known for its reservation and rectitude. Finally, Trump’s hostility toward refugees did not bode well in a state founded by religious exiles. Only 14 percent of Utahns voted for Trump in the state’s Republican primary.

As late as October, pollsters and pundits questioned if Utah could, for the first time in nearly half a century, turn blue. Yet on Election Day, an overwhelming plurality (46 percent) of Utahns voted for Trump, while 21 percent of the electorate cast what has been termed in Mormon communities as a “moral vote” for third-party outsider, and fellow Mormon, Evan McMullin. Utah Mormons, for all their agitation, were solidly complicit in Trump’s victory.

Post-election, Mormons on Capitol Hill (at the time, there were six Mormons in the Senate, seven in the House, and hundreds in staffing positions) faced three options: fall in line with party leadership in support for the administration; resign, as former House Oversight Committee Chairman Chaffetz did in June; or break ranks with their votes and vocalized antagonism.

Hatch quickly chose the first option, cashing in on the gamble he made with his reluctant support of Trump’s campaign. He soon won favor with the president by voting with the administration 96.4 percent of the time.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could speak more freely, two senior Hill staffers familiar with Hatch’s decision-making process told me that Hatch primarily supported the administration in an effort to pass legislation that would serve as a capstone for his four-decade tenure in the Senate. When prospects for repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes seemed dismal, Hatch became frustrated legislatively — and more vocal in his criticism. In July, he rebuked Trump for his transgender troop ban and his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Still, Hatch never went as far as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another Mormon lawmaker who declared Trump morally bankrupt and called for Republicans to break rank with the administration in an explosive Politico op-ed. (Flake is also not seeking re-election.)

Yet Hatch finally achieved his piece de resistance as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, when he played a key role in passing the tax cuts in December. Trump took this moment as an opportunity to praise Hatch, calling him “one heck of a leader.” That verbose praise, and Trump’s personal visit to Utah to remove protections on vast swaths of land at Hatch’s request, were not enough to get the senator to run again, as Trump had hoped.

While Hatch had previously announced his plans to retire, he seemed to be reconsidering in recent months. Yet vitriolic town halls, a dismal approval rating among Utahns and an eviscerating editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune in December may have given him pause.

Now Romney — one of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans in the country — is reportedly considering running to replace him. Former Vice President Joe Biden has encouraged Romney to run for this seat, and McMullin has said he would support Romney, too. If Romney ran and won, Utah’s seats would be occupied by ideological foils: a senator seeking, like Flake, to envision a new, moderate future for conservatism; and Lee, who has embraced Trump since the “Access Hollywood” scandal and called for the party to embrace “principled populism.”

Still, Mormons are looking for a candidate who can voice their frustration with the administration. “I think most Utah Republicans are repulsed by Trump as a person and by his leadership style,” said David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. “I think a very large majority of Utahns will vote for Romney if he runs and will support him in office, because most Utahns are morally against Trump.”

In the meantime, the question of where Mormons fit within mainstream conservatism looms large as pollsters and politicians seek to understand the shifting demographics of the region. Utah is an aberration of demographic trends: the level of education, economic achievement and social mobility that exist within the region are closer to key demographic markers in solidly Democratic states such as California or in socialist countries like Denmark — not Utah’s deep red Rocky Mountain neighbors.

In 2016, Utah Mormons’ party allegiance overshadowed their moral apprehensions. “The election was about partisanship, not moral principles,” Magleby said, citing widespread concern among Utahns over the vacant Supreme Court seat. But if a former GOP presidential nominee like Romney could serve in the Senate in open opposition to Trump, emboldened by the full-throated backing of his heavily Mormon constituency, he could emerge as a powerful swing vote capable of whipping his colleagues, as well. Trump appears to fear this prospect deeply, having thrown extensive resources into goading Hatch into another run.

It’s far from guaranteed that Romney could -- or would -- lead this charge from the Republicans’ tenuous Senate majority, though, warned Brigham Young University political science professor Richard Davis. “I think there is going to be enormous pressure on him as a freshman senator to do what other Republican senators want him to do, so he’s actually going to have a very difficult time playing the role people think he’s going to play,” Davis said. “I’m not so sure he’s going to voice the concerns of the disgruntled like they think he will.”

Still, the vacuum left by Hatch could inspire again a fatigued Mormon resistance if a popular Never Trump candidate like Romney goes to Washington — and is emboldened to speak out in office. Even if Romney faces chastisement from his more partisan colleagues, Utahns could provide their antagonistic senator job security few Republicans around the country enjoy, enabling them to voice opposition to the administration and envision a new, moderated conservatism — and lead their party toward it.

Lauren Jackson

Lauren Jackson is a freelance reporter and student at Oxford University.

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