Utah’s Next Senator Could Be More MAGA Than Mitt

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to reporters in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., Sept. 13.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to reporters in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., Sept. 13.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to reporters in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., Sept. 13.

There’s no one else like Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate — and there probably won’t be any time soon.

The retiring Utah Republican, a rare GOP critic of Donald Trump who twice voted to impeach the former president, is unlikely to have a successor as committed as he is to battling his party’s de facto leader. And even if Utah does elect another Trump critic to replace Romney in 2024, that person most likely won’t command the same moral authority that Romney has during his single term in office.

The result is almost certain to be a gaping hole in the already small group of Republicans willing to speak out with moral clarity about the GOP’s rapid slide into authoritarianism and demagoguery.

“As a moral voice in the Senate, Mitt is irreplaceable,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost Thursday.

“Mitt has upright moral character and oftentimes challenges people to view an issue beyond the short-term politics,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), another member of the Trump-wary caucus in the upper chamber. “You always wish to have someone like that around.”

Romney, 76, said he is retiring due to his age and a desire not to serve into his 80s. But the former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate was already facing rumblings of a primary challenge from at least one Republican to his right, as well as others more closely aligned with the MAGA movement.

Those challenges would likely have only intensified. Romney was a ripe target for hard-right Republicans who took issue with his impeachment votes, his bipartisan dealmaking and his general antagonism toward Trump, who is currently the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in the year that Romney would be running for a second term.

“Does he want to go through the kind of colonoscopy that would be a reelection for him?” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP operative who briefly served as deputy campaign manager for Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. “Given the stature that he maintains in his career — heading up the U.S. Olympics, heading up Bain [Capital], being a governor, being a U.S. senator, being a presidential nominee — regardless of what people think about his politics, he still stands in the political ecosystem as a statesman, and to degrade himself seeking reelection is probably not the most enticing option for this point in his career.” 

Riverton, Utah, Mayor Trent Staggs, who launched a campaign against Romney in May, tweeted shortly after Romney’s announcement: Right now, let’s replace America First’s biggest critic with its biggest ally!”

“I’ve been hearing from so many Utahns that they were just done ... They were not going to vote for Mitt Romney,” Staggs told right-wing influencer Benny Johnson. “I think he left the Republican Party some time ago.”

Romney’s retirement will open the floodgates to more candidates. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson had already formed a Senate exploratory committee prior to Romney’s announcement. Wilson presided over the state House GOP caucus as members weighed a resolution to rebuke Romney for his 2020 impeachment vote. Republicans opted instead for a proclamation thanking Trump for his work on issues “critical to Utah.”

Rep. John Curtis, one of the state’s four Republican U.S. House members, tweeted that he’s received encouragement to run for Romney’s seat. Like all but 10 House Republicans, Curtis did not vote to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. But he said Trump deserves some of the blame. “I think it’s clear he bears some responsibility,” Curtis said a week after the attack, adding that he didn’t like what he called the rushed timeline of the Democratic-led proceedings.

A source close to former CIA agent Evan McMullin ― an independent who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Senate last year against Republican incumbent Mike Lee ― told HuffPost that McMullin is being encouraged to take another look at running.

Romney’s electoral chances in Utah, one of the nation’s reddest states, were questionable given recent precedent. Eight of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for Jan. 6 either didn’t run for reelection, most likely fearing a primary challenge, or lost elections, like former Rep. Liz Cheney, who represented Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat until losing a 2022 primary to Harriet Hageman by almost 40 points.

In Utah this month, Becky Edwards, a Republican who rejected Trump in 2020 and instead voted for Joe Biden, narrowly lost a special election to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Chris Stewart (R), despite what seemed like an openness among voters to elect a non-MAGA Republican.

Like Cheney, Romney was not elected as a Trump antagonist. But the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee always had a tumultuous relationship with Trump, bashing him during the 2016 primary — which, in turn, led to Trump mocking Romney’s 2012 electoral loss and calling him “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.” In 2018, however, Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement for his current seat. 

Romney’s exit from the Senate puts an exclamation mark on the transformational change within the GOP from the once-ascendant Ronald Reagan-minded wing of the party to the MAGA acolytes of Trump and his strongman persona.

“Parties change. The Democratic Party’s changed. The Republican Party’s changed. I am comfortable with where I’m at, and if he’s not comfortable where he’s at, I understand,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who underwent his own metamorphosis from a sharp critic of Trump into an ally, said of Romney on Thursday.

Parties change. The Democratic Party’s changed. The Republican Party’s changed.Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the chamber’s more conservative members, called Romney “out of sync” with today’s GOP, and said he disagrees with the notion that Republicans are unwilling to break with their party, as Romney reportedly says in a forthcoming book by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. In the book, Romney criticizes Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) for being disingenuous in their support for Trump, and says his colleagues are afraid to speak out against the former president.

“That’s like the nicest thing he’s said about me. You should see what he says in private,” Hawley said Thursday. “I did like the part where he said I was smarter than Ted Cruz.”

The reality is that, with Romney and other dealmakers heading for the exits, senators in the mold of Hawley and Cruz are increasingly poised to become the future of the GOP.

But Romney says he’s confident that the tide will turn back to sanity — eventually. 

“I think the people of Utah will elect someone who represents mainstream Republican values,” he told Politico. “And I don’t think you’re going to see a MAGA Republican coming into the Senate.”