WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is well on his way to becoming either the face of President Trump’s Republican collaborators or the face of his GOP critics. And maybe he’ll be both.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee with an earned reputation for political flexibility, was poised Tuesday night to easily win his Senate primary in Utah. The ruby red state has sent only Republicans to the Senate for the last four decades. Barring the unforeseen, he’ll be a senator in January.
Romney’s stature as the GOP’s 2012 nominee and his return to national leadership would intensify scrutiny of his relationship to Trump and the president’s fervent base. He’s the rare Republican standing for election who has gotten away with calling out Trump, labeling him during the presidential campaign a “con man” and a “fraud,” and predicting that his policies would be devastating to the country.
Yet more recently he’s cozied up to the president, predicting that Trump will be “solidly” reelected in 2020 and offering muted criticism on his harsh policy of separating migrant children from their parents.
This leaves a central mystery to Romney’s candidacy: Is he running to remind Republicans about a kinder and gentler version of their party? Or is he a consummate politician seeking influence, whose views are still best characterized by the “Etch A Sketch,’’ a metaphor coined by a top Romney campaign aide in 2012?
The unique politics of Utah, where more people voted against Trump than for him in 2016, give Romney more latitude than many Republicans to criticize the president during the Senate primary contest.
“Most Utahans expect leaders to uphold core values and to conduct themselves with decency,” said Evan McMullin, who has ties to Utah and ran as an independent in the 2016 presidential race and took 21 percent of the vote in Utah. “That, coupled with Mitt’s deep well of support in the state, certainly gives him the opportunity to set a needed example of honorable leadership at a time when the country needs it, and to bear the criticism of some when that puts him in conflict with the president.”
Romney himself has tried to answer such fundamental questions, penning a 600-word op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune this week.
“I have and will continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions,” Romney wrote.
“I do not make this a daily commentary; I express contrary views only when I believe it is a matter of substantial significance,” he added.
But Romney hasn’t spoken against the president on immigration, even though it would seem Trump’s controversial policy, now reversed, of forcibly separating migrantchildren from their parents qualifies as substantially significant.
When Trump’s separation policy came up recently on the campaign trail, Romney deflected blame from the White House.
“The politicians in Washington — many of them are looking to find fault,” Romney told voters, according to The Washington Post. “I like to find answers.”
Episodes like that have led political observers and allies of the president to believe that Romney will be a critic but not a bomb-thrower in the Senate.
“I don’t think he’ll go out of the way — in the tradition of a couple of senators who, when in doubt, would pick a fight with the president,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who competed with Romney for the 2012 Republican nomination for president.
“Mitt’s a pretty practical guy,” Gingrich added.
Gingrich predicted a Senator Romney would behave a lot like Corker of Tennessee.
“Trump is very formidable,’’ Gingrich said. “Whatever the Washington press corps thinks of him, the country thinks something very different.”
Trump’s coterie of aides and former aides has long been suspicious of Romney — a feeling that goes back to the 2012 election.
“Romney really treated Trump badly in the 2012 cycle,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide. He said that Trump’s acolytes were miffed that Romney didn’t give Trump a speaking slot at the Republican convention, even though Trump endorsed Romney.
But Nunberg warned that Trump needs to watch out for Romney.
“He probably thinks that it’s unfair, it’s not justice that Donald Trump is president,” said Nunberg.
“If Romney could, he would be the final vote for impeachment,” Nunberg added. “He is not Trump’s friend.”
A spokesman for Romney didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Trump’s posture toward Romney has also evolved. He sparred with Romney during the 2016 election, then floated the idea of appointing him to be secretary of state before giving the job to Rex Tillerson.
And when it became clear that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch planned to retire, opening a slot for Romney, Trump tried to convince the 84-year-old senator to hold on to his job. At the same time, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon attempted to recruit a strong primary challenger to at least make Romney’s run difficult.
In the end, few thought Romney could be beaten. Trump endorsed Romney via his Twitter feed on Feb. 19, saying “He will make a great Senator” and “has my full support and endorsement!”
In April, Romney faced headwinds at the state GOP convention and was edged out by a more conservative candidate, Representative Mike Kennedy. Kennedy earned 51 percent of the support of the delegates and Romney took 49 percent — but neither cleared the 60 percent that would have been needed to avoid a primary.
“Those who show up and those who participate are going to be the more conservative types,” said Kennedy in an interview. He didn’t blame Trump for supporting Romney, saying that the president endorsed before his campaign took off.
Kennedy said that Utahans view him as closer to the president. “They see Mitt Romney as a thorn in the side of the president, not somebody who will support him,” Kennedy said.
But Romney’s world is entwined with the Republican Party that Trump has taken over. His niece, Ronda Romney McDaniel, is the head of the Republican National Committee. His son Josh is mulling a gubernatorial run in the state. Chris Liddell, who was tapped to run Romney’s ill-fated 2012 transition team, is Trump’s White House deputy chief of staff for policy coordination.
And Romney’s long history of threading a needle between two seemingly irreconcilable positions might be what Utah wants.
“Utahans are largely divided on President Trump,” said Jason Perry, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “For a political candidate to be successful here, the winning strategy seems to be charting your own course.”