On Wednesday, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney announced he would not run for reelection in 2024. On the surface, the electoral impact of Romney’s decision is minimal — his seat should stay safely in Republican hands. But it’s still notable because it represents the departure of one of the few remaining Republican senators who had a moderate voting record and/or vocally opposed former President Donald Trump.
The Senate, of course, was a second (or, really, third) career for Romney. After a successful career in business during which he co-founded Bain Capital, Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 — part of the Bay State’s long-standing love affair with moderate Republican governors. He ran for president twice and won the Republican nomination in 2012, losing to then-President Barack Obama in the general election.
That was the last time the GOP chose a presidential nominee who wasn’t Trump. Since 2016, Republican voters have turned against Romney’s brand of establishment-aligned Republicanism and embraced Trump’s brash populism. In 2018, a year that saw large numbers of moderate or anti-Trump Republicans leave Congress, Romney bucked the overall trend by getting elected to the Senate from Utah (where a large number of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including Romney himself — have made the local GOP more Trump-skeptical than most). Since then, he has spoken out vocally against the party’s new direction. Most notably, he voted to convict Trump in both of his impeachment trials.
Romney also developed a moderate voting record, breaking with the right wing of his party in votes ranging from confirming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to overturning Trump’s emergency declaration to fund the border wall. Romney’s DW-NOMINATE score — a measure of ideology based on roll-call votes, where 1 represents the most conservative and -1 represents the most liberal — is 0.288, making him more moderate than all but three current Republican senators.
Both groups of Republicans — Trump opponents and ideological moderates — are endangered species now, and Romney’s departure will further cull the herd. Of the 17 Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump in either of his impeachments, only six are still in Congress, including Romney. And the number of Senate Republicans with DW-NOMINATE scores below 0.300 is at its lowest point in at least 40 years.
Romney’s anti-Trump and moderate record may have indirectly contributed to his decision to retire, as it has made him relatively unpopular with Republican voters in Utah. According to an Aug. 7-14 poll by Dan Jones & Associates, only 56 percent of registered Republican voters in Utah approved of Romney’s job performance. That may not seem too bad, but among members of your own party, 56 percent is a pretty mediocre approval rating. (By contrast, 81 percent of Republican registered voters nationally have a favorable opinion of Trump, according to the latest poll from Quinnipiac University.)
Much like prominent Trump critic former Sen. Jeff Flake did in 2018, Romney may have declined to run for reelection because he was afraid of losing in the Republican primary. The same poll asked about a hypothetical primary match-up, and Romney received 45 percent support among Republicans. That’s pretty anemic for an incumbent, who are accustomed to waltzing to renomination.
On the other hand, no other candidate in the poll got more than 7 percent, and only 27 percent said they would vote for an unnamed other candidate. Furthermore, the poll found that Romney’s approval rating among Republicans was on the rise; back in May, only 40 percent had approved of his performance. So Romney’s path to renomination is probably clearer today than it has been for a while, making the timing of the announcement curious. So perhaps we should take Romney at his word when he cited his age as a factor in his retirement video. (Romney is 76 and would have been 83 at the end of a potential second term.)
So what’s next for Utah’s Class I Senate seat? Romney’s retirement is unlikely to lead to a competitive general election next fall: Even though Utah has shifted toward Democrats in the Trump era, it is still red enough that it voted for him by more than 20 percentage points in 2020, and Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in the Beehive State since 1996. (True, anti-Trump independent Evan McMullin lost to Republican Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 by only 10.4 points after Democrats stood aside and didn’t nominate anyone in order to give McMullin a better shot at winning. But, on the other hand, anti-Trump independent Evan McMullin still lost to Republican Sen. Mike Lee in 2022 by 10.4 points even after Democrats stood aside and didn’t nominate anyone in order to give McMullin a better shot at winning!)
So the contest to watch will be the state’s June 25 Republican primary — specifically, whether the party’s nominee will be more conservative and/or pro-Trump than Romney. So far, it looks like the answer is yes; the field of candidates and potential candidates lacks someone as iconoclastic as Romney. State House Speaker Brad Wilson, who has already formed an exploratory committee, is pitching himself as a “conservative champion,” and in 2020 he introduced a legislative resolution paying tribute to Trump after his first impeachment. However, he may be the most palatable option for old-school Republicans; a second candidate, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, has assailed Romney for his support for “wokeness” and for impeaching Trump. And Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who served as co-chair of Trump’s reelection campaign in the state and attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, is a rumored candidate as well.
But there is still plenty of time for a Romney-esque candidate to jump in. Utah still has a fair number of Trump-skeptical Republicans — for example, former state Rep. Becky Edwards, a Republican who voted for President Biden and just narrowly lost a special primary election for Utah’s 2nd District. It’s possible that one could emerge from the Senate primary if the conservative/pro-Trump vote is split among multiple candidates. But of course, none of the alternatives have Romney’s name recognition or financial advantage. So there’s no doubt his retirement is a gut punch for Republicans who don’t like what’s happening to their party.