Mitt Romney easily defeated Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson to clinch an open Utah Senate seat, positioning him to become the highest-profile freshman senator since Hillary Clinton’s successful New York bid in 2000 when her husband was still president.
With his more than 60 percent win, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee is poised to fill a power vacuum in the Senate GOP. The party has lost many of its most senior members and moderate voices through retirement, not to mention the death of John McCain. Purists from both parties have looked to Romney as one of the lone — if only — politicians with the clout and gravitas to become both a counterweight to President Donald Trump and a defender of the institution.
But the lack of a real challenge during Romney’s campaign has left questions about his willingness to take on the role of the Senate’s conscience.
He will still be a freshman senator, last in line to pick committee assignments, desk location and office space, and responsible for time-consuming duties like presiding over the chamber.
In the waning days of his campaign, he tried to take a middle line on signature Trump issues and his relationship with the president himself. He campaigned at a mosque, but said he was in favor of Trump’s travel restrictions.
He told reporters he was not a leader of the “never Trump movement.” Then, a few days later, he published an essay on his campaign website directly countering President Trump’s portrayal of the media as “The Enemy of The People.”
“I cannot conceive of thinking or saying that the media or any responsible news organization is an enemy,” he wrote. “The media is essential to our Republic, to our freedom, to the cause of freedom abroad, and to our national security. It is very much our friend.”
But he said at a debate that it “does not make sense” to talk about impeachment because Trump is a “sitting president.”
Romney repeatedly said during his campaign he would be sparing in his critiques of the president.
He took the role of a senior political figure on the campaign trail, sharing his star power and his Mormon bona fides in appearances stumping in Utah and Arizona for Republican Reps. Mia Love, one of the most vulnerable House incumbents, and Martha McSally.
When he is sworn in in January, it will be Romney’s first time taking an official role in Washington politics, despite years of trying. He lost a 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts and fell to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race. Then, after he spent the 2016 cycle warning his fellow Republicans that Trump was a “phony” and a “fraud,” he entertained Trump’s consideration for a cabinet seat, only to be publicly snubbed by the president.
Romney is cognizant of the pecking order in an institution that prides tradition and values seniority. He spent much of his campaign cultivating a strong relationship with Republican Mike Lee, who will become Utah’s senior senator. A Lee spokesman told Roll Call in June the two spoke on the phone regularly.
Retiring Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch told Roll Call in June that Romney’s ability to step into the power vacuum he is leaving behind is why Hatch encouraged Romney to run.
“He’ll be a freshman senator. He’ll have to earn his influence,” Hatch said. “But he’ll have automatically some influence because he’s a top flight guy who’s been a major governor, a major candidate for president. So he has to be given a lot of consideration.”
It’s uncertain how Romney will navigate his relationship with Trump, who endorsed him at the start of his Senate campaign.
At the time, Romney signaled he would focus on Utah and work to embody the state’s particular brand of conservatism. Voters in the largely white, male and Mormon state are reliably right-leaning on social questions such as abortion and gay marriage, but moderate on issues such as immigration. Romney’s new constituents also resoundingly rejected Trump in the 2016 primaries, potentially positioning Romney to become a moderating voice in the Senate.
Romney expressed little interest in using the post to directly take on the president.
“There are times when I think the president has said things that are racist and misogynistic. I will speak out about those things,” he said at an October debate. “I choose the things that I say … when something of great significance, I will speak my mind and do my best to represent the values and feelings of the people of Utah. I also believe he is president and that he is doing a lot of things that are very helpful for our state. I will support him in those things.”
Rather, Romney indicated he would like to become a leader in policy issues, such as fiscal policy and foreign relations. He has reportedly expressed interest in joining the Foreign Relations Committee. On the campaign trail, the former governor of Massachusetts talked about the need for states to take control of their own programs such as health care and affordable housing. He criticized the president’s tariffs and the GOP tax cuts for wealthy individuals.
In his victory speech too, Romney seemed to separate himself from Trump. He called his Tuesday victory an “affirmation that regardless of one’s gender, or ethnicity, sexual orientation or race, or place of birth, that we are all equal not only in the eyes of God but also in the respect and dignity we are due from government and from our fellow Americans.”