By Rhys Thomas
Former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has announced that he is getting back into frontline politics and will be running for a United States Senate seat representing Utah.
Long-term Senator Orrin Hatch is stepping down this year, leaving the door wide open in a red state for a major player. Hatch has been cited as persuading Romney to run, giving the former Republican nominee a formal memo when they met for lunch in Washington DC. He favourably cited Romney’s “personality, his attractive appearance and ability to speak, and the experiences he’s had”, and his entry into the race is sure to make it a rare state-level election that garners national attention. This isn’t a welcome development for Donald Trump, who has stated how much he likes Hatch and was keen to keep him in the Senate as someone to help craft legislation, as shown by his work on the tax bill which has been a big priority for Trump and Republicans.
Despite never having served in elected politics there, Utah provides sympathetic territory for Romney. Its significant Mormon population along with the religion’s spiritual home in Salt Lake City give him a natural grounding in addition his various other connections to the state – he’s had a residence in there for many years, obtained a BA from Brigham Young University and most famously saved the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake which was destined for misery and failure until Romney stepped in and saved the day. His private assertion during the 2012 campaign that he was known as the “flipping Mormon” would hardly be a problem in Utah.
So, the Senate seat is practically his. Significant Republican opponents within the state have bowed to the inevitability of Romney’s candidature and stepped aside, with Democrats unlikely to win in the general election (the last Democratic Senator there was Frank Moss who lost his third re-election attempt in 1977 to Hatch). The likely Democratic candidate is Salt Lake County council member Jenny Wilson, but as former Democratic mayor of Park City Bradley A. Olch succinctly puts it, “It’s Utah, and she’s a Democrat”. Despite this, sources say that he’s not taking the election for granted and plans to run a heavily localised campaign, avoiding talking about the President and forming a campaign team mostly made up of Utahns instead of those who worked on his Presidential bid in 2012.
Romney has been a well-known figure in American politics for some time now. He served one term as Governor in the liberal state of Massachusetts, rejecting a second-term run in favour of a shot at the Presidency for the 2008 election. He lost that race to eventual nominee John McCain, but he made a national name for himself by winning eleven states and setting himself up as the natural next nominee of the Republican Party. He eased to the Republican nomination in 2012 past an eclectic mix of candidates, and never truly relinquished his early favourite tag despite various media fads around some of his opponents. Whilst he had little problem with his fellow Republicans, Barack Obama proved a stiffer challenge, and the President triumphed 332-206 in the Electoral College. Romney had been in a perpetual state of running for President from 2006 to his eventual loss as Republican nominee in 2012, and hasn’t formally been involved in politics since that loss.
Losing a Presidential election is a gut punch, especially when you have been building up to it for so many years. After his loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale asked 1972 loser and fellow Democrat George McGovern how long it takes to get over an election loss on the biggest stage of them all. McGovern’s response was “I’ll let you know when it happens”. During the campaign Romney noted how any runner-up in a Presidential race was a “loser for life”, and that it was something to be carried forever. In the modern pantheon of Presidential election losers, Romney has appeared to get over it pretty quickly – although it’s easier when you have a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt followed the former Governor from his decision to run in 2006 to his eventual loss against Barack Obama in 2012. Romney appears polite yet intense, and underneath the sheen was a motivated politician. When he loses in 2008, his family are united in saying that they never want to do this again but it is clear that his mind is whirring with future possibilities especially when one of his son’s states that Romney is the “next guy in line”. The prospect of power is some motivator.
His next potential shot at high office came after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election. Despite repeatedly criticising Trump’s conduct and even refusing to vote for him, when Trump dangled the Secretary of State position in front of his eyes – Romney was only too happy to meet him. This resulted in a very public humiliation, Trump teasing his detractor with the prospect of one of the most significant posts in global politics. Romney was wined and dined at Trump International Hotel and the two were snapped enjoying dinner, with Trump’s Cheshire-cat grin juxtaposed against Romney’s grimace. It was an obvious yet effective political move from the then President-elect, and was damaging to Romney’s credibility who was yet again made to look like an untrustworthy political flip-flopper, a charge which has plagued his political career.
The big question is what sort of Senator will he be. There is the potential for him to stand up to Trump from a conservative perspective and be a persistent thorn in the President’s side. What seems more likely though, is that he will acquiesce like so many moderate Republicans in Congress. Whilst he has readily criticised Trump on a number of issues in the past, Romney was prepared to drop all that for a position in the Trump administration and even the most vocal Trump critics in the Senate like Jeff Flake and John McCain have actually supported much of the Trump agenda. To put it simply, issues like tax cuts for the rich and repealing Obamacare are staple Republican priorities which those Senators will vote for no matter who is in the White House, and Romney is motivated by power – even more so than most politicians and it is likely that he will work with the President, but possibly speaking out against on Trump’s moral issues like he has in the past.
Romney will be 71 in March, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to serve for as long as Hatch. One possible outcome will see him serving one or two terms, with the former allowing him to “put country before party”, standing up for his beliefs without much worry for his political future. However it is unlikely that Romney would just be content as a run of the mill Senator, and a shot at becoming Senate Majority Leader is possible as the Republican Governor of Utah Gary Herbert has suggested. Another Presidential run may not even be out of the equation, with talk of a conservative challenge to Trump in 2020 or even a run in 2024 which would be the last full year of Romney’s first Senate term.
Romney was due to formally announce his candidature on 15 February, but postponed due to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The midterm elections across the United States will be held on 6 November.