On Wednesday Utah Sen. Mitt Romney delivered an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate, outlining his belief that President Donald Trump’s conduct was sufficient to justify the exceptional remedy of impeachment. An hour and a half earlier, Sen. Mike Lee, of the same state, articulated an argument for why the articles of impeachment were legally insufficient to warrant President Trump’s removal from office.
Four years removed from Trump’s election, Utah continues to have a complex and unique relationship with him. Romney has been and will remain at the center of it.
In 2016 Utah was patient zero to the most fervent strain of anti-Trumpism on the right, and it materialized at the ballot box. Romney, who had won Utah by 48 points in the previous presidential race, delivered a major speech at the University of Utah urging fellow Republicans to deny Trump the nomination.
Many within state politics urged Romney to run as an Independent. Trump’s demeanor and bombastic persona ran afoul to the socially conservative, Latter-Day-Saint-dominated Utah electorate, and the people deserved a non-Trump/Hillary Clinton option. He declined, but the anti-Trump die was cast.
Trump received just 13 percent of the vote in the statewide GOP caucus. Just one month prior to the general election, in response to the release of “Access Hollywood” tape, Lee called for Trump to withdraw from the race. Lee, along with 21 percent of Utah voters, just couldn’t stomach Trump and voted for Independent Evan McMullin. Although Trump carried Utah comfortably, he was just the second Republican to receive less than 50 percent statewide since Barry Goldwater.
Fast-forward four years, and Lee has become one of the president’s most strident allies. His conversion path is shared by many who previously found Trump a bridge too far. The leftward trajectory of the Democratic Party, coupled with booming statewide and national economies, has many former Trump-phobic adversaries taking a position they couldn’t previously imagine: an alliance with the orange man.
The last four years have been good to conservative causes, the judiciary is cemented in originalism for a generation, tax policy has spurned terrific economic activity, and retirement account balances go higher and higher. Voting for Trump doesn’t mean you have to share a pew with him at church on Sunday.
A recent Suffolk/Salt Lake Tribune poll showed Trump’s approval numbers at 56-37, with only 35 percent supporting his removal from office. The other four GOP members of Utah’s federal delegation, as well as all six GOP gubernatorial candidates, support President Trump’s reelection. Utah, it seems, has gone the way of all the other red states.
So, is Romney’s Utah political future in trouble? Heck, no. Putting aside that he has another four years left in his term, there is nearly nothing Romney could do from a political standpoint that would jeopardize his electoral status.
Reaction from GOP lawmakers to Romney’s impeachment vote have been a mix of respectful disagreement and outward condemnation. One Utah lawmaker introduced a nakedly unconstitutional bill outlining the process of recalling a U.S. senator. Another lawmaker intends to introduce a censure resolution. Still others respect Romney’s decision process while not understanding his conclusion.
The majority of Utahns value independence over partisanship, and while his vote in the impeachment trial may be a scarlet letter to the more conservative sections of the Utah electorate and Republican political establishment, the dissenting voices simply have no recourse but at the ballot box. Only a fool would bet against Romney in a Utah election.
During the height of the Tea Party movement, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated in the Utah GOP convention by a few thousand super-charged and staunchly conservative state delegates. The eventual victor in that race? Lee.
The outcry from the establishments of both political parties caused the Utah Legislature to provide an additional and alternative signature-gathering path for a candidate to be placed on the ballot. Romney knows this new system all too well, as he lost to an unknown candidate in the state convention for his Senate seat in 2018.
The signature path, however, allowed Romney a second chance—this time with the primary electorate as a whole. Romney won by 43 points, then cruised to a general election win. Utah may have changed in the four years since Trump, but it will never change enough for Romney not to be a winning candidate in whatever statewide race he decides to enter—whether he votes aye or nay on impeachment.
Romney’s vote for conviction does give voice and representation to a large, but ultimately insignificant and decreasing number of Utah Republicans and Independents who continue to oppose Trump. Romney became the first senator in American history to vote for the conviction of a president of his own party.
That being said, the vote itself was effectively meaningless to the final outcome. We risk overanalyzing the affects of an impeachment that played out as a daily drama for the cable news crowd more so than a serious, sustained discussion where most everyday Americans remained interested. Most people simply don’t care enough to make this an issue, especially four years from now, when Romney comes up for reelection. One of the truths of the Trump era is that every news cycle is quicker than the previous one.
Romney and the Senate has always felt like a bit of a miscast, with whispers that he may seek only one term. He recently laughed off suggestions that he might be positioning himself for a post-Trump run at president in 2024.
The more reasonable scenario is that after Romney lost his two bids for the presidency, he took a serious look at what he believed. Now, free from the pressures of serious electoral consequences, he is charting a course for what he thinks is best.
President Trump and his ardent base will neither forgive nor forget Romney’s vote, but Romney has shown willingness to support the president where he can. Romney was elected in 2018 with a healthy dose of Trump skepticism, not nihilism. And that’s what Utah voters sent him to Washington to represent.