Is the GOP’s Tent Big Enough for Both Trump and Romney?

Mitt Romney meets with students at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, February 16, 2018. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
If he wants the GOP to win the midterms, Trump should embrace every viable Republican candidate, regardless of past feuds.

On Monday, President Trump offered an enthusiastic endorsement of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate, after the 2012 GOP presidential nominee announced that he would run for the seat of retiring longtime Utah senator Orrin Hatch:

Romney and Trump have something of a complicated history — especially over the last two years — which makes the president’s quick and effusive backing somewhat of a surprise. But it’s a surprise that the president should endeavor to repeat throughout the midterm elections if he hopes to bolster his first term with any legislative achievements beyond tax reform.

The presidential tweet’s conciliatory tone is an unfamiliar one, especially in light of Romney’s sustained public opposition to Trump’s candidacy in 2016. In March of that year, Romney delivered a major speech urging Republicans to vote strategically in order to deny Trump an outright majority of delegates heading into the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which would have opened the possibility of a non-Trump compromise candidate winning the Republican nomination. Unlike many leaders on the right, who slowly came to embrace the unconventional candidate, Romney persisted in vocally opposing Trump even after he had secured the nomination.

In May of 2016 — after Trump had won the Indiana primary and all but locked up the nomination — Romney explained his rationale in steadfastly opposing the GOP nominee to the Wall Street Journal:

I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world. . . . I know that some people are offended that someone who lost and is the former nominee continues to speak, but that’s how I can sleep at night.

Romney went on to skip July’s Republican National Convention. Later, he denounced Trump’s comments on the infamous Access Hollywood tape that emerged just a month before the November election.

All of this makes Trump’s immediate support for Romney’s Senate campaign fairly puzzling. Trump has never been known for receiving public criticism with grace — whether those volleys come from perceived enemies on the left or would-be allies on the right. Despite being the standard bearer of the GOP in 2016, Trump often refused to support the Senate campaigns of Republicans who didn’t embrace his own candidacy as enthusiastically as he wished. Indeed, in the weeks before his inauguration, some speculated that Trump had entertained the possibility of Romney’s nomination as secretary of state — only to spurn him and choose Rex Tillerson — as a way to exact revenge for Romney’s failure to endorse his candidacy.

In fact, both during and after the 2016 elections, Trump appeared to revel in attacking Republicans who expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership of the GOP. The laundry list of Trump’s rhetorical onslaughts against members of his own party has grown too lengthy to explore in great detail, but no Republican daring enough to criticize him has been left unscathed — and that includes Romney, whom Trump personally attacked on over a dozen occasions during the course of 2016 alone.

Republican Senate candidates’ lack of gusto for Trump’s campaign, however, didn’t end up being terribly detrimental to them in the 2016 elections — at least, not as detrimental as hardcore Trump supporters insisted it would be. Many Republican incumbents even ran ahead of Trump in their home states: from Ron Johnson in Wisconsin to Marco Rubio in Florida to Ohio’s Rob Portman, among others.

And Romney will surely be no exception in Utah, with or without the president’s endorsement. In 2016, the state did go to Trump, but over 20 percent of Utah voters supported third-party candidate Evan McMullin, the largest share of the vote he received in any state, by far. Utah is a conservative state, but it’s not a Trump state, and from the looks of Romney’s opening salvo in the campaign, he knows it.

His young candidacy has already been fascinating, if only for what it has revealed about both Trump and Democrats. Some on the left insist that Romney’s willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement proves he’ll never dare to oppose the president on anything. Those expecting Romney to arrive on the Senate floor as the newly minted Republican anti-Trump will likely be disappointed, yes, but to large swathes of the left, any failure to loudly condemn Trump’s every word is equivalent to abetting his supposed attempts to overthrow our Republic.

By every indication, Romney will tread a middle course, and there’s no evidence that he has bowed obsequiously to Trump since 2016 in order to win the president’s support. For example, Romney didn’t hesitate last August to roundly condemn the president’s failure to single out white nationalists and neo-Nazis for criticism after the alt-right’s Charlottesville rally.

Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign-announcement video contained a few lines that could very easily be taken as a critique of the president. For instance: “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in Washington. . . . Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the word. Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion. And on Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect.” And several outlets have reported this week that sources close to Romney say that, as senator, he wouldn’t hesitate to publicly critique the president as he sees fit.

Even so, the president’s quick embrace of Romney — appearing to set aside the vitriol of 2016 — seems to suggest that he’s willing to overlook past transgressions for the sake of building a Republican coalition capable of winning the midterms. If that’s the case, that calculation would be a huge shift for Trump, and a welcome one for GOP lawmakers handcuffed by the slim Senate majority and concerned about losing the House to Democrats in November.

As senator, Romney wouldn’t hesitate to publicly critique the president as he sees fit.

Perhaps Trump has realized that, if he wishes to sign major legislation into law beyond last December’s tax reform, he’ll need more than 51 GOP senators to get the job done. Alternatively, perhaps the president suspected that Romney might be able to win in Utah even without his support and wanted to preempt that possibility by getting on board early so that he can claim credit come November.

Regardless, urged on by his ever-present desire for victory, Trump should take the same good will he’s managed to muster toward Romney and apply it to the campaign of every viable Republican candidate, regardless of past feuds. After all, he knows better than most how to wield the undeniable power of his persona and the loyalty of his base to drum up broader support on the campaign trail, and he’ll be especially successful in doing so if he focuses on last year’s popular tax-reform legislation — and Republicans’ undeniable success in confirming conservative judges — rather than his own petty grudges.

If he follows such a course, Donald Trump would be doing the Republican party a huge favor. But he’d do even more to help himself.