When veteran Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he would retire, all eyes turned to Mitt Romney.
Once on the Republican presidential ticket, Romney is a familiar and respected face among Utah’s conservative establishment voter base — one that has never had a taste for the president’s antics.
Utah is unique in Republican politics. Nationally, there’s been a push to reimagine the Republican Party through President Trump’s (and to some degree, Steve Bannon’s) vision. But Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told Vox recently that a transformation away from the traditionally pro-immigration, free trade, small-government, and moralistic conservative mentality faces a tougher road in the majority Mormon state.
“Bannon would get his head handed to him if he came to the state of Utah,” Cox said.
Romney has made no effort to hide his distaste for Trump, and the president reportedly tried to convince the 83-year-old Hatch — who has kept closer to Trump — to run for re-election to prevent a Romney run. It’s made the Utah 2018 Senate race appear on the surface as a matchup between the leader of the Republican Party and Romney.
I asked Cox to ask what made of Utah’s deep conservative roots in the age of Trump. He said the national narrative around Trump and Romney has forgotten that Utah is not like other Republican states. Utah voters still prize candidates’ adherence to conservative morals, they hate Trump’s tweets, and to them, Romney is “royalty,” he said.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for style and length.
Is this going to be Mitt Romney versus Trump?
How do you see the Trump era of Republican politics playing out in Utah?
While Utah is a very red state, I think there is a mistake to compare it to other red states. It’s more constructive to look back. There are two places to look.
One is the 2016 primary. ... Rather late in the race, there were only three candidates left and Trump finished third — a distant third — even behind John Kasich.
And then also to look at how Mitt Romney performed in the state as a candidate versus Trump. The data still shows that Trump is under water in the state of Utah.
I think people are happy with the tangible results that are happening in the first year of the Trump administration — less happy with his Twitter feed, perhaps, and other things.
What does the national narrative of Utah get wrong?
People are trying to posit Mitt Romney running for Hatch’s seat as Romney versus Trump. and I don’t think most Utahns will see it that way. Mitt Romney is royalty here in the state of Utah. And I can tell you the polling numbers we’ve seen over the past two years, he’s still the most popular politician in the state of Utah.
If you look at the mean score for Mitt Romney, he has the best mean score for anyone in the state. It’s just pretty much an inevitability.
[The idea that] Bannon could come in, or Democrats, in a year that Republicans are doing terrible — that this is a pickup state — it’s just not even close.
I have had to reevaluate my political compass nationally. Things keep happening that I didn’t think could happen. But that’s certainly not been the case in Utah.
What do you make of this Bannon purge of the Republican Party? There was some chatter after Hatch’s announcement, that Utah could be a test for Bannon.
Bannon actually had Orrin Hatch on his list, and by all reports backed off later at the encouragement of Trump. When it looked like Romney would come in, he suddenly warmed up to Hatch.
But Utah was absolutely on the Bannon list, and I can tell you very clearly that Bannon would get his head handed to him if he came to the state of Utah. And, in fact, our own governor has publicly stated a few weeks ago when Bannon attacked Mitt Romney, that he would publicly work to defeat anyone that had the support of Steve Bannon running for office, and I feel the same way.
Having Bannon’s support would be the kiss of death.
I don’t see any big-name challenges to Romney, and people make big mistakes in comparing, if we can flip Alabama, then there’s flipping Utah.
If there is any kind of race at all, it would be somewhere in a primary where someone that Trump or Steve Bannon really supports tried to run against Mitt Romney.
Somebody who actually hasn’t come out against Trump, who is retiring, is Hatch. He actually has become more vocal in defense of Trump. How has that played out in the state?
It’s been a mixed bag. I think because he was able to convince the president to do certain things — like the monument rollback, which Republicans in the state of Utah have been agitating for, for 20 years. So I think that people here recognize that’s how he was able to accomplish some things.
But it hurt Hatch’s popularity. There’s no question. Of course, he promised not to run again last time he ran, and sees that Mitt Romney is the most popular in the state. Hatch’s popularity was at the lowest, maybe, of his career. Certainly, some of the hyperbole wasn’t as helpful and didn’t hurt Mitt Romney on the other side.
What do Utah voters want?
You say Romney is royalty, but what will Utahns be looking for in a senator after 40 years of Hatch?
Well if Romney runs, they’ll be looking for Romney.
I don’t think you can complicate this too much. He’s incredibly respected. They love who he is as a person, they love who he is as a family man. they love his track record, from the Olympics to being a successful governor. Someone who has really carried the banner — even though he didn’t live in Utah — for Utah Mormons, someone they can look to who respects people.
What would you say are the biggest policy areas concerning Utahns?
I don’t know that there will be huge policy issues that will come up. I don’t know if I see a Sen. Romney vote that different than Sen. Hatch or the rest of Utah’s delegation. It’s a very conservative state, and I think Mitt Romney, at least through his last presidential run, the policy that he advocated for will be very similar.
The interesting one — and it depends on what Congress will decide to tackle this year — the immigration issue is one that could raise its head with DACA and the wall and border issues.
Utah is a place doesn’t act like other red states when it comes to immigration. We had immigration reform a couple years ago that didn’t happen because the federal government didn’t allow us to — but very forward-thinking immigration. I don’t think you will see differences when it comes to Obamacare, and I don’t know if entitlement reform will get a look.
Is the anti-Trump Romney the Romney Utahns want to see?
Something you said earlier — that Utahns are happy with results and less happy with his Twitter feed. There are a lot of senators and lawmakers who have criticized the president, his agenda, and rhetoric that continue to support his agenda and really push to get him legislative wins. What’s an effective check and balance? What should they do?
Well, every politician, especially a Republican, has to find their own path forward. I would disagree that they are just giving him legislative wins. The conservative agenda existed long before Donald Trump. The more interesting legislative arguments are where Trump disagrees with traditional conservatism.
First of all, this is a problem that has been going on from the imperial presidency — in the ’60s and on — that Congress recognizes, especially individual members of Congress.
They have kind of lost their way and their constitutional position in understanding how those checks and balances are supposed to function in the first place. I thought it was important, when President Obama was the president, that we are not ruling the country through fiat, that Congress does have a role to play, and they should play that role more actively.
Not against President Trump, per se, but against the presidency in general, reestablishing the Congress as a thorough legislative body it was meant to be — and not letting executive orders go unchallenged.
But when it comes to individual pieces of legislation, though, where they are just voting up or down, I hope that they’ll represent their constituents and, as far as Republicans go, that they’ll continue to advocate for conservative legislation that I believe in.
Or even on the investigative front — Mitt Romney is somebody who has spoken out about the president’s tax returns, or come out in front of the president’s policies. Is that something Utahns would expect him to bring to Congress?
That’s a really interesting question. Jeff Flake, for example, who also happens to be Mormon, and others, who when they decided they are retiring become much more vocal, either because they couldn’t win in the first place, or just decided not to run. I don’t think Mitt would have that kind of discretion that he would have to toe some kind of line.
For one, he is 70 years old. I don’t know if he would want to run for multiple terms, but I don’t think him doing that would hit his popularity too much in the state of Utah, like Republicans in other red states.
Utah isn’t your typical Republican state
I was going back through some old Trump tweets about Utah; what’s your reaction when you see those?
I think most people just blow that kind of stuff off as President Trump just being President Trump, but clearly the tapes that came out prior to the election played more of a role in the state of Utah than maybe in other places.
All the lines have been crossed that I don’t know if it matters anymore. I honestly don’t. I think we have all had to reset our bearings on what is and what isn’t acceptable.
Among Utah’s representation in Congress you see both the anti-establishment thread that fueled Mike Lee, as well as this strong Mormon morality that has come through in a lot of Hatch’s legacy. How is the anti-establishment thread in Utah different than what we saw in the 2016 race?
That’s a valid question, and I’m not sure exactly how to answer. I mean, if you consider Mike Lee anti-establishment, he ran unchallenged last time around and had the support of the governor. So I guess there is a dual thread, but Mike Lee is very well respected and loved by the establishment and anti-establishment alike.
I would say that the anti-establishment is likely smaller here in the Republican Party than elsewhere. There’s a fairly vocal anti-establishment that is more involved in party politics but is a fairly small minority of the party as a whole in the state.