In ruby-red Utah, replacing Romney could turn into fight for soul of GOP

Will voters get the chance to choose between a bipartisan workhorse like Mitt Romney or a Trumpist like Mike Lee?

By Savannah Behrmann – National Journal – November 27, 2023

ST. GEORGE, UTAH — The race to be Utah’s next senator will highlight which brand of Republicanism the Beehive State is embracing.

With the retirement of Sen. Mitt Romney—who told his constituents in September he is stepping aside for a “new generation of leaders”—comes a crucial decision for Utahans: Will they seek to replace Romney, 76, with an old-school Republican like himself, or lean further into Trumpism and select someone closer to the state’s other senator, Mike Lee?

Brad Wilson, who was speaker of the Utah House of Representatives until earlier this month, is the latest candidate to enter what will be a crowded field of Republicans seeking to replace Romney.

“We need to make sure that Utah has a strong conservative voice back in Washington, D.C., and someone that understands this state is passionate about conveying its values to the rest of the country,” Wilson told National Journal during an interview at BZI Steel in Cedar City, Utah, where he was meeting with the owners and receiving a tour of the facilities.

Wilson, like many of his Republican competitors, was contemplating running for the Senate seat long before Romney made it official. The reason? Many believed Romney—who had forged a path in Congress to become a moderate and bipartisan workhorse—was not conservative enough to reflect Utah’s values.

Wilson joins a field of at least six other candidates who seem to lean further right than Romney, including Roosevelt Mayor Rod Bird Jr., former Lee staffer Carolyn Phippen, and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs.

So far, a Romney-esque Republican is missing from the field. However, Rep. John Curtis, who has leaned away from Trumpism, is reportedly reconsidering a bid after saying last month that he wouldn’t seek Romney’s seat. He would likely be a front-runner if he decided to join the field and fill the Romney void.

National Journal reached out to Curtis’ camp to inquire about the Senate race but did not hear back at time of publication.

If Curtis or a similarly centrist Republican jumps in, it will give voters a stark choice. Do they want their new senator to be like Romney, the party’s 2012 standard-bearer who helped negotiate bipartisan bills on infrastructure, gun-safety legislation, microchip manufacturing, and COVID-19 relief funding, or more like Lee, consistently ranked as one of the senators who is least willing to cross party lines on legislation, per the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index rankings?

If no Romney-esque candidate runs, it’s almost certain Utah’s next senator will be far more conservative.

Wilson, who was elected to three terms as speaker in Utah’s state House, said he sees “the world through a very similar lens” as Lee. “Mike has been very helpful in pushing back on a lot of government overreach, helping us keep things in their way and lane,” Wilson said, adding that he’ll be touting his “successful career as a lawmaker and speaker of the House, championing conservative values and pushing issues that matter to Utahans.”

Walking amid the metallic smell and sound of welding at BZI, Wilson discussed the importance of investing in infrastructure and bringing new projects to Utah—one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

When asked if he would have supported the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—the largest transportation-spending package in U.S. history that passed Congress in 2021—Wilson said he would not have supported the bill because the country “already had inflation that was on afterburners at that point.”

“The timing of that bill … wasn’t the best,” he said. “I’m all for infrastructure when it’s done the right way, but when you already have inflation that was accelerating, the timing of that was not right for our country, and we’re paying the price for that.”

Romney helped craft that bill, and he has touted its success in Utah in the years that have followed. Lee voted against it.

Josh Randall, another candidate in the race, told National Journal he’d have voted against the bill as well, also citing Romney’s votes to confirm Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act, both of which Lee voted against.

“I just haven’t felt like Romney’s been very representative of Utah,” said Randall, a certified public accountant. “Suffice to say that there are various things he’s voted for that I wouldn’t have voted that way, and I would like us to have another senator who will vote the way that I think is best.”

Romney was once hailed as an old-school conservative with a Reagan-era focus on small government, traditional values, and national security, a reputation that helped him secure the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 2012. But he has never shied away from bipartisanship: As governor of Massachusetts, a blue state with a Democratic legislature, Romney accomplished bipartisan legislative successes including a massive health care reform law, much to the ire of conservatives in his party.

And in a time of increasing partisanship in Washington, that philosophy may have been hard to continue while representing a state like Utah, which has long beenconsidered one of the most conservative states in the countryA poll from Noble Predictive Insights in July revealed Romney struggling with Republicans in the state—54 percent didn’t want him to seek reelection—but he did find some support among the state’s independents and Democrats.

Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, told National Journal he wasn’t surprised to see Romney losing support from voters of his party given his votes on certain policies—and his votes to convict Donald Trump not once, but twice, in the impeachment trials. He became the first senator ever to vote to impeach a president of the same party.

Davis said Romney “finally found himself by the end [of his career] as to who he was and what he was, and that just didn’t fit, frankly, with the Republican Party of today.”

Trump will certainly shape next year’s Senate race in the state, especially if he’s on the ballot as the GOP presidential nominee.

A rift in the Utah Republican Party has continued to widen in recent years under the pressure of Trump and Trumpism, seemingly splitting the party into two camps: moderate voters and more-conservative voters. While a majority of voters identify themselves as Republican, according to Pew Research, Utahans are less likely than GOP voters in other states to succumb to Trumpism.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church—which more than 60 percent of Utahans identify with—tend to be more moderate on issues such as immigration and abortion, and they weren’t as enthusiastic about Trump as a person and a candidate compared to previous Republican candidates. By comparison, Romney secured nearly 73 percent of the vote when he was the nominee in 2012.

Davis said that many in Utah may see Trump as out of step with LDS values: “He’s brash. He’s had these divorces. He’s profane and he’s not a very nice person. But I think Utah voters came to accept more in 2020 that he was the Republican nominee.”

The question of whether Trump’s support in the state will wane with its growing, more-diverse population or continue to grow and impact candidates downballot remains to be seen.

In any case, Romney might have once again struggled at the state’s convention next year. Utah is one of the last remaining states to host nominating conventions, with elected delegates rather than the broader voting population selecting primary candidates.

Romney was famously booed and called a traitor at the state’s convention in 2021 after his second vote to convict Trump, following the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol building. Ultimately, the state party rejected a motion to censure Romney over his conviction vote.

In a new biography of the senator, Romney: A Reckoning, McKay Coppins of The Atlantic wrote that Romney struggled to reconcile his party’s embrace of Trump with his Mormon faith and that he became particularly frustrated with the direction of his party after the events of Jan. 6. He was angry with many of his Republican colleagues over their attempts to overturn the 2020 election, telling Coppins he thought many of them didn’t believe in the Constitution.

As for the upcoming presidential election, Romney told CBS News on Friday that he would prefer almost any Republican in the primary race over Trump. “I’d be happy to vote for a number of the Democrats, too. I mean, it would be an upgrade, in my opinion, from Donald Trump,” he said.

In the Utah race, Davis said he would have expected Romney to bypass the convention and go straight to the primary, but that if a more conservative candidate emerged to face Romney in a one-to-one contest, “he might have lost.”

Wilson said Utahans have expressed concerns over the Constitution to him—but it’s been about preserving gun rights, not efforts to overturn elections. Romney was the only member of the Utah delegation to vote for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The legislation addresses the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” pumps money into red-flag grants for every state, requires a more extensive background check for buyers under the age of 21, and provides funding to address and prevent mental-health crises.

“I understand their concerns. I’m going to want to support Utahans that feel that way. That’s part of why I’m going to show up the way I’m going to show up,” Wilson said.

On the other side of the aisle, there wouldn’t appear to be much reason for optimism. Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Frank Moss in 1970. Last year in the race against Lee, Democrats instead threw their support behind Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump Republican-turned-independent. And though McMullin lost by a vote of 53-43 percent, Democrats say they are encouraged that a path has opened up for more-moderate candidates.

A special election in the state’s 2nd Congressional District—which stretches from St. George up to Salt Lake County—could prove to be an indicator of how voters are feeling heading into next year.

Republican Celeste Maloy defeated Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe in the special election last week to replace Rep. Chris Stewart. Maloy is Stewart’s former chief legal counsel. Stewart originally did not support Trump and served as Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign chairman in the state, and he once referred to Trump as the party’s “Mussolini.” After Trump was elected, Stewart—like many Utahans—fell in line with the president.

Maloy defeated Riebe by a vote of about 57 percent to 34 percent.

Still, Ben Anderson, the communications director for the state Democratic Party, told National Journal that without Romney in the Senate race, there is an opportunity for Democrats, given how conservative some of the Republican candidates are.

“Romney has built a reputation of speaking out against Trump, something that earned him pretty high ratings across party lines. These other Republican candidates who are running for Senate are very different from that. They’re very, very hard-line partisan GOP,” Anderson said. “There’s definitely a big difference there, and I think that that is going to make a difference for Utahans.

“Romney not being in the race provides a much greater opportunity for a Democrat to do really well because Romney has pretty high approval ratings, even among Democrats,” he said.

Romney notably did not back Lee in his closer-than-expected reelection race last year, despite Lee appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show to ask his Senate colleague for help. In Coppins’ book, Romney cited Lee’s efforts to help Trump stay in the White House after 2020 and Lee’s opposition to his bipartisan efforts and legislation.

“Utah is fortunate to have several candidates who are interested in serving in the Senate, and while Senator Romney has great respect for Representative Curtis and Speaker Wilson, he has no plans to get involved in the race,” Arielle Mueller, Romney’s press secretary, told National Journal.

Davis said he believed Romney knew “he was going to be in trouble with the Republican Party and that a serious candidate running against him in the primary could have made it difficult for him.”

“He could have run as an independent or for the United Utah Party, and I think he would have won because he would have attracted enough Democrats and independent voters, and some Republican voters, to be able to pull it off,” Davis said.

“But I think he still has this sense of loyalty to the Republican Party. He still, I think, has this sense that he can bring back the Republican Party from the brink of Trumpism.”