Political commentator Bill Kristol opened his speech to the Sutherland Institute’s annual gala in Salt Lake City earlier this month by noting how delighted he was to have spent time that evening with two of his favorite politicians: Senator Mike Lee and, of course, “Senator” Mitt Romney.
The crowd’s laughter morphed into approving applause at Kristol’s winking reference to the prospect of a Romney run. Kristol, meanwhile, proffered a faux apology to Romney, seated in the audience.
A Dan Jones Utah Policy poll released earlier this year recorded Romney with an astoundingly high 71/25 percent favorable/unfavorable rating in Utah. Even 45 percent of Democrats in the state viewed him favorably. (For perspective, the same poll had the state’s popular sitting governor, Gary Herbert, at 63/29 favorable/unfavorable, Senator Mike Lee at 51/33, and Senator Orrin Hatch, whose seat Romney would theoretically be seeking, at 46/47.) And among self-identified “active” Utah Mormons — perhaps the state’s most important voting bloc — Romney’s split rose to 88/10.
If the steel-jawed, Olympic-saving septuagenarian becomes Utah’s next senator, he would for the first time be representing a core constituency in near-total sync with his own views. And his supporters contend that this dynamic could make for his finest political hour.
He’ll be largely free to dispense with political maneuvering, the thinking goes. He’ll finally be able to focus on what he does best: problem solving. His reservoir of support will afford him the luxury of speaking his mind, and he will no longer face the inevitable political calculations that come with eyeing some future presidential bid. He will, in short, be free to be himself: Mitt, the conservative Mormon family man with a penchant for business, politics, and pragmatism in the service of the body politic.
Fairly or not, Romney’s political opponents have long labeled him inauthentic, a flip-flopper, or, in the characteristically florid prose of Rick Santorum, “a well-oiled weather vane.” A more charitable reading, of course, is that Romney made compromises in order to plow a decidedly difficult political path as a conservative in deeply blue Massachusetts.
In 1994, Romney — a Mormon boy born in Michigan — audaciously launched his political career by challenging Ted Kennedy in Kennedy-loving, Catholic-heavy Massachusetts, with its well-earned reputation as the most liberal state in the union. To have any prayer, Romney had to scoot as close to Kennedy as possible on social issues without causing the bracketed R after his name to teeter.
He lost soundly anyway, but, eight years later his reputation as a moderate and a problem solver (he had just turned the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Olympics into a smashing success) propelled him to Beacon Hill as Massachusetts’s 70th Governor. From there, the standard pro-Romney narrative is that he alchemized a $3 billion deficit into a surplus, signed “Romneycare” into law and, after a chunk of concrete collapsed and killed a driver in an I-90 tunnel-construction project, swiftly ended a vacation, audited the situation, and took to the airwaves in a kind of crisis-management tour de force that shored up shaken public confidence in the project.
He would at last be free to find solutions to the nation’s challenges with the backing of a base that seems to trust him far more than most.
Whatever his accomplishments and failures in Massachusetts, his ideological appeals to left-leaning constituents came back to haunt him during his bid for the 2012 Republican nomination. In a post-Tea Party climate, Romney had to tack to the right in order to compete for the nomination. No longer angling for left-leaning independents in the Bay State, he characterized himself as a “severely conservative Governor” at CPAC. This solidified his reputation with the press as an opportunist, but it also effectively signaled to conservatives across the country that — whatever his past political sins — he could pass their purity test.
If Romney runs for Senate — and he’s said to be waiting for Hatch to decide one way or the other on retirement before making a final choice — it would be an unexpected bookend to his decades in politics. He began his career running for Senate in a state where he had little support or name recognition. Now, more than two decades later, he would be running for the same office in a state where he’s among the most popular and well-known politicians.
If the prevailing thought among admirers is correct — that his true skill is solving problems, rather than politicking — then running for the Senate from Utah would allow Romney to play to his strengths. That’s not to say that if he were successful his term in Washington would be without cost. It would undoubtedly be less pleasant to plunge once more into the breach of America’s sclerotic Congress than to stay home and enjoy time with the Romney’s ever-expanding brood of grandchildren. Nor would it be simple to navigate a Republican party led by Donald Trump, with whom he has had a complicated relationship in the recent past.
But for boosters the potential upsides are hard to ignore: A Senator Mitt Romney would no longer need to flatter. He would no longer need to pander, jockey for position, or map out some future bid for higher office. Rather, he would at last be free to find solutions to the nation’s challenges with the backing of a base that seems to trust him far more than most. After a career spent straining to reassure an unending string of wary constituencies, that would be a relief.
— Hal Boyd is the editorial page editor of the Deseret News.