Commentary: Could Utah Sen. Romney challenge President Trump in 2020?

Romney would more likely not be the typical obedient freshman senator.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney makes a speech about the state of the 2016 presidential race and Donald Trump at the Hinckley Insitute of Politics at the University of Utah Thursday March 3.

Mitt Romney is now an announced candidate for the U.S. Senate. He did so in an online video aired Friday morning — rather than making a traditional announcement before a room of supporters. His announcement featured scenes of Utah’s mountains and people as well as the state capitol and the Utah Olympic Oval.

He declared, “I have decided to run for United States Senate because I believe I can help bring Utah’s values and Utah’s lessons to Washington” and that “Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah.” He said “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in Washington.” He did not mention any names — in Utah or in Washington.

But contrast to the arguments of the current president, Romney stressed that “Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world; Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion.”

Born and raised in Michigan and a successful businessman in Massachusetts, where he served as that state’s governor, he has been a resident of Utah for five years. He earned his B.A. at BYU and is remembered as a successful manager and problem solver during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Utah.

Given his 90 percent to 8 percent win in the 2008 Utah Republican presidential primary, his 73 percent of Utah’s vote in the 2012 presidential election, and a 45 percentage point lead over Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson in a Jan. 23 Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted by well-respected pollster Dan Jones, Romney is the leading candidate to succeed Orrin Hatch. Hatch announced on Jan. 2 that he would not seek an unprecedented eighth term.

Question: Would Romney be comfortable being one of 100 senators when he has always been an executive, manager and administrator, the boss, never a legislator?

His role model was his father George Romney – corporate executive, Michigan Governor, HUD Cabinet Secretary, and presidential candidate.

Mitt Romney has been an entrepreneurial businessman, mission president. president/CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Massachusetts governor and twice candidate for president.

If elected in 2018, then takes office in 2019 at age 71, Romney would have no seniority and no committee or subcommittee chairmanship. He would be one vote out of 100. His power as a senator would appear to be his vote in committee and on the Senate floor.

Romney’s age and his recent move to Utah has openly irritated some Republican Party leaders in the state. Utah Republican Party Chair Rob Anderson, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, said “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better for for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here.” Romney has made Holladay, Utah, his home since 2013.

Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner quoted Anderson as saying there are three or four other “good, conservative people” who planned to run. He did not provide names, but he did say that potential candidates had backed off because Romney “has been poaching all of the talent as far as campaign and messaging and financing.”

Anderson’s comments reflected the views of some right-wing state Republicans, who perceive Romney to be too moderate in his politics and too critical of the Republican in the White House.

In the interview, Anderson questioned Romney’s support for the current Republican president. “He has never been a Trump supporter … I just want somebody to support the party platforms.”

The Tribune noted that Anderson later apologized to Romney, who had contacted him.

“I am grateful he reached out to me to discuss this matter, and even more so that he accepted my apology without hesitation.” If nominated and elected, Romney said in his announcement that “I will owe the Senate seat to no one but the people of Utah,” and “I will fight for Utah.”

Jason Perry, executive director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, has observed that “on the organization chart, Romney will be a freshman senator. But in terms of impact and influence, he will have more power than any freshman senator we have seen in many years. Mitt Romney will not need to spend time making a name for himself in the Senate.”

But the question remains: What would a new Sen. Mitt Romney really be able to do — beyond being a single vote in committee and on the Senate floor?

McKay Coppins, a journalist with Utah roots who has written a book about the future of the Republican party as well as insightful articles about Donald Trump and Michael Pence for The Atlantic magazine, has reported that a new Sen. Romney could become chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he could potentially use his business connections and fundraising experience to help fellow Republicans seeking election and re-election in 2020.

Coppins reported earlier this month that “according to two Republicans close to Romney, who requested anonymity to describe private conversations, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell assured the former presidential nominee last year that if he ran for Senate he would have more influence than the typical junior senator.”

Coppins quoted a prominent Republican Party donor who observed that, “Mitt becoming Senator Mitt Romney and chairman of the NRSC elevates Trump’s biggest intra-party foe.” If so, then “this is not the outcome Trump wanted when he encouraged Hatch to run again.”

Indeed, looking ahead to 2020, raising campaign dollars for Republican Party colleagues and candidates could greatly increase support for Romney — especially among Republicans who conclude that the Republican in the White House is harming the Republican Party — with the presidential election on the political horizon.

This influential position could happen even if Democrats capture control of the Senate and Sen. Romney were a member of the Republican Senate minority — with no power to influence the Senate’s law-making agenda.

As of today, nearly all public opinion polls indicate a potential Democratic party “wave” victory this November. If so, then newly elected Sen. Romney would be viewed by many as an election survivor who can speak for a rebuilding Republican Party.

Traditionally, a freshman senator feels the pressure to express support for a member of his party who occupies the White House. Richard Davis, Brigham Young University political science professor and a co-founder of the new Utah United Party, speculates that freshman Sen. Romney would feel pressure from his Republican Senate colleagues to “do what other Republican senators want him to do,” and accordingly, “he’s actually going to have a very difficult time” being the critic “of the disgruntled like they think he will.”

However, if elected, Romney would more likely not be the typical obedient freshman senator. To the contrary, Romney is already known to speak his mind.

If Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake (and perhaps John McCain) are no longer in the Senate, then Romney could be the most visible Republican Senator to criticize the Republican in White House. Why?

March 3, 2016, I was present when Romney delivered a blistering 15 minute criticism of candidate Donald Trump at the University of Utah – proclaiming “dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark … he’s playing the American public for suckers … a con man … a fake … a phony, a fraud” who uses “third grade theatrics” and “bullying” when “he creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants.”

Romney predicted [Trump] “will never ever release his tax returns. Never – not the returns under audit; not even the returns that are no longer being audited. He has too much to hide.” He said, “Trump’s bombast is already alarming our allies and fueling the enmity of our enemies,” and he “admires Vladimir Putin, while he has called George W. Bush a liar. That is a twisted example of evil trumping good.”

March 22, three weeks later, Romney’s popularity in Utah probably had an impact upon Utah Republican voters because Trump received only 14 percent of votes cast in the statewide Utah Republican caucus.

Romney did not attend the Republican National Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the “titular head” of the Republican party for four years following his 2012 loss to President Obama, but he chose not to attend his party’s formal decision to declare Donald Trump the formal nominee of his party for the presidential campaign. (The 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, as well George Bush — father and son presidents — avoided the event in Cleveland.)

Oct. 7, 2016, Romney criticized Trump’s characterization of women seen in an “Access Hollywood” program video recorded in 2005 and released by the Washington Post. (The recording revealed Trump’s desire to grab married women in order to seduce them, and he was heard to associate sexual assault with seduction.) Romney, in a 140-character tweet, declared: “Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.”

Nov. 8, Trump won the election. In Utah he received less than 47 percent of total votes cast. In recent decades, Republican presidential candidates have won Utah with approximately a 70 percent vote margin. A majority of Utah voters agreed with Romney, and they rejected Trump.

The new President-elect invited Romney to meet about serving as secretary of state. They met twice before Trump rejected the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. (Remember Hillary Clinton and John Kerry both lost campaigns for president, but later served four years each as secretary of state.)

A few weeks later, Roger Stone, a long-time confidante and supporter of Donald Trump, claimed in an interview with New York magazine reporter Margaret Hartmann that “the President-elect only interviewed Romney for secretary of state because he wanted to ‘torture him.’”

In February 2017, Romney told reporters that he might again seek public office. He did not identify exactly what office. Throughout the remainder of 2017, Romney avoided the news media. This past year of pondering his political future included surgery for early-detected prostate cancer last summer, from which he appears to have recovered fully.

Last August, Romney responded to Trump’s blaming “many sides” for the violence and death in Charlottesville, Va., that was praised by KKK members and white supremacists. On his Facebook page, Romney asserted that Trump’s words had “caused racists to rejoice” and “minorities to weep.”

Romney said “the president must take remedial action in the extreme. He should address the American people, acknowledge that he was wrong, apologize.” And Romney asserted that, “in homes across the nation, children are asking their parents what this means. Jews, blacks, Hispanics. Muslims are as much a part of America as whites and Protestants. But today, they wonder. Where might this lead? To bitterness and tears, or perhaps to anger and violence?”

Romney declared that the confrontation and controversy resulting from the violence in Charlottesville presented the 45th president with a “defining moment.” Moreover, “it is a moment that will define America in the hearts of our children. They are watching, our soldiers are watching, the world is watching. Mr. President, act now for the good of the country.”

Trump’s response? No apologies.

Instead, during the latter half of 2017, Politico reported that Trump was conducting a whispering campaign of derogatory comments intended to sabotage a possible campaign by Mitt Romney for the U.S. Senate. In doing so, the 45th President continually encouraged Hatch — chair of the Senate Finance Committee — to announce his candidacy for re-election.

The president’s criticism of Romney could be communicated indirectly and often through his scheduling secretary Rob Porter. Porter had served three years as Hatch’s chief of staff before moving to the White House to serve as special assistant to the president. In that strategic position, Rob Porter could act daily as a messenger between the president and Senator Hatch.

Last Dec. 4, at the Utah Capitol, Hatch introduced Trump, who gave him a hug and proclaimed: “We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time.” The political English translation: “Don’t give Mitt Romney the Utah Senate seat. He would cause me trouble. He could be a rival.”

The same day, NPR’s Mara Liasson reported that, “Trump had hours to persuade Hatch to run again while on Air Force One flying back and forth from Washington. Trump also made time to lavish praise on Hatch. ‘You are a true fighter, Orrin,’” Trump declared after giving Hatch the public hug and praise.

Both Hatch and Trump were aware that statewide public opinion polls indicated a clear majority of Utah voters wanted Utah’s seven-term 83-year-old senator to retire rather than seek an unprecedented eighth term.

If Hatch had decided to seek an unprecedented eighth term then, most likely, he would have been challenged by Jenny Wilson — the leading Democratic Party opponent who has been actively campaigning for over a year while serving as a Salt Lake County Councilwoman. Public opinion polls indicated that Hatch faced a close race if he sought re-election. Wilson’s father, Ted Wilson, served 10 years as mayor of Salt Lake City — leaving office in 1985 with a public approval rating of 82 percent.

Nevertheless, on Jan. 2, Hatch announced via YouTube that he would not seek an eighth term. Curiously, two days later, Trump called Romney. What was said? The White House deputy press secretary stated, “They spoke about Senator Hatch and his outstanding service.”

In contrast, an anonymous source confided the conversation was brief, but that Trump had actually encouraged Romney to seek the open Senate seat Hatch has held since 1977. Specific words shared in the private call are unknown. What is known is that these men — one who sought the presidency and lost the popular vote twice, and the other who won the White House despite losing the popular vote — have a very strained relationship.

Meanwhile, during the last weeks of December, television viewers could see short campaigns ads promoting the re-election of President Donald Trump in 2020.

As 2018 began, Romney spoke at two Utah business conventions in January during which he was articulate and looked healthy as he expressed his views on the U.S. and Utah economy. He praised the actions of Republicans in Congress who voted in December to change America’s tax laws and encourage small businesses by reducing federal regulations. He never mentioned the name of the 45th president, a member of his own Republican party, who signed that federal legislation.

David Magleby, BYU political science professor and pollster, has observed that “a large majority of Utahns will vote for Romney” and “will support him in office, because most Utahns are morally against Trump.”

Romney and Trump do share similar views on the economy. However, their personalities and philosophies as well as their ethics and rhetoric differ greatly.

As recently as Jan. 15, exactly one month prior to his online video announcement, Romney responded to a Trump profanity about peoples living in Haiti and in Africa. Romney tweeted: “The sentiment attributed to POTUS (president of the U.S.) is inconsistent w/ America’s history and antithetical to American values.”

Remember the last decade? First term Sens. Barack Obama (2008), Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (2016), each sought the presidency. True, they did not challenge an incumbent president. But they had not already been a presidential candidate — twice.

For Mitt Romney, could the third time be the political “charm?”

If Trump faces impeachment in Congress, then his re-election campaign could potentially cause great damage to Republican Party candidates for Congress — and throughout the nation. Romney might be viewed as the “savior” of the Republican Party in 2020 — much like he was viewed during the 2002 Utah Winter Olympic Games.

Could Romney wage a successful campaign against President Trump? He would have name recognition and experience, organization and money – and motivation.

But if he won the Republican nomination, could he win the general election?

Consider U.S. political history.

• In 1912 Republican President Taft survived Theodore Roosevelt’s challenge but lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.<br>• In 1968, Lyndon Johnson retired when Democrats Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged him — and Richard Nixon won the White House.<br>• In 1976, President Gerald Ford fought off Republican Ronald Reagan – but lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter.<br>• In 1980, Carter defeated Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy – but lost re-election to Ronald Reagan.<br>• In 1992 George H.W. Bush was challenged by Republican Ross Perot – allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to win with 42%.

The 2020 presidential election is on the political horizon. What can we predict?

The winner of a Romney-Trump Republican Party confrontation? Most likely, the Democratic candidate. Why?

Historical precedents indicate a badly divided political party loses to a united one.

Donald Trump has done something that Will Rogers said was impossible: organize and unite and motivate Democratic Party voters. Meanwhile, independent voters have been shifting away from the Republican Party. And traditional Republicans find themselves confused and increasingly alienated by daily dramas and erratic decision-making by the current Republican administration.

Historically, American voters in each election agree that they want “change.”

In 2020, chances are American voters will again be voting for “change.”

In 2020, anything is possible. Remember 2016?

Tim Chambless

Tim Chambless was a long-time professor of political science and teacher at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He is now an associate professor adjunct, teaching at the University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on investigative reporter/columnist Jack Anderson.