Republican senators are growing concerned by colleague Mitt Romney’s refusal to help fellow Utah Republican Mike Lee decisively win his re-election campaign — a posture that could potentially keep their party from gaining a majority in the November elections. Unlike every other Republican senator, the 2012 failed Republican presidential candidate is declining to express a preference in Republican Lee’s re-election effort against Democrat-endorsed Evan McMullin.
“I respect [Romney], and I understand that each state has its own dynamics, but I do not understand why he is remaining neutral,” said one Republican senator who asked not to be identified. “Whatever our differences, we all try to support each other around election time.”
Both moderate and conservative senators confirmed the grumbling in the conference. “We should not have to be worried about Utah in any way. I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing, but it’s not going over well, particularly with the [senators] who are up for chairmanships,” said another Republican senator. Neither Lee nor Romney responded to inquiries by press time.
A new poll from Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics claims McMullin is only 2 percentage points behind Lee, with a full 16 percent of respondents unsure who they will vote for. The poll is admittedly somewhat difficult to believe, and not just because it was conducted by a pollster with a history of dramatically overstating the electoral appeal of McMullin. The group’s final 2016 poll, for example, showed McMullin losing Utah’s presidential contest by only 2 points to Donald Trump. The final result was that Trump bested McMullin, who actually came in third behind Hillary Clinton, by 25 points.
Even so, the poll suggests the strategy McMullin shared with left-wing allies at The Washington Post and other corporate media — building a coalition of Democrats, independents, and Romney and his supporters — is working at least somewhat according to plan.
In February, The Washington Post stated the obvious: Romney refusing to endorse fellow Republican Lee would be a “boon” for McMullin and would make it much “harder for Lee to consolidate the votes of moderate Republicans.”
Democrats also joined in the coordinated effort to help their party maintain control of the Senate, declining to nominate their own candidate Kael Weston and instead endorsing independent McMullin.
“It is disappointing to see Senator Romney take a back seat in his in-state colleague’s race as Senator Mike Lee enjoys broad support from voters across Utah and the country,” said Jessica Anderson, president of the Sentinel Action Fund, a political action committee associated with conservative issue group Heritage Action for America. “Conservatives should utilize every tool possible to take back the Senate, starting with supporting incumbent Senators in important races.”
Romney claimed he couldn’t possibly endorse in the race because he is friends with both candidates, though it’s unclear why he thought his previously unannounced friendship with McMullin would be harmed by him supporting Republican incumbents and nominees, as all other Republican politicians do.
The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen scoffed at Romney’s line about friends. “That’s sweet, but party loyalty matters, too. It’s one thing to disagree within one’s own party; that’s what primaries are for. It’s another to say that one is going to stay out of a general election and essentially tell your own state’s voters that there’s no difference between your party’s nominee and someone backed by your party’s adversaries. If that’s friendship, Lee should start finding better friends,” he wrote in March.
Romney’s refusal to support Lee, and support his party’s message that they have better solutions to what ails the country than their Democrat counterparts, is making other Republican senators doubt his loyalty to them, observers say.
“If you’re not going to have the back of your colleague in your state who is a fellow Republican, how will I know you’ll have my back?” said one senior Republican staffer, describing the thinking of the conference. “It creates a certain amount of awkwardness in the conference as a whole.”
When he first publicly announced his decision not to endorse his fellow Republican, Romney might not have imagined that Democrats would join the McMullin effort. Romney is about as popular with Democrats as he is with Republicans in Utah, holding roughly half of each group’s support. His refusal to endorse in a three-way race would have likely had little substantive effect on who won. But a refusal to endorse a two-way race is much more significant.
Romney also might not have realized how vitriolic a campaign would be waged by his friend McMullin, who has called the constitutional conservative Lee a “conman,” pushed conspiracy theories, and supported disinformation campaigns against Republicans.
All of this has Romney’s Republican colleagues concerned, and not just for Lee, but for themselves.
Polls show Republicans on track to do well in November, but with several incredibly tight contests. If Democrats were able to pull off an upset in Utah, it would have profound consequences for the control of the Senate, and the policies facing the country.
If McMullin and other Democrat-endorsed politicians were able to keep control of the Senate, that would mean Bernie Sanders would chair the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions rather than Rand Paul. Gary Peters would be the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee instead of James Lankford. The powerful Judiciary Committee would be helmed by Dick Durbin, not Lindsey Graham. And Maria Cantwell, instead of Ted Cruz, would chair the Commerce Committee.
Both moderate and conservative senators expressed disagreement with Romney’s work in support of Democrats. Several noted the potential unexpected consequences of his alleged neutrality in the race. One of Romney’s close friends is fellow moderate Susan Collins of Maine. If Romney’s stunt were successful, two senators highlighted, it would mean that Patty Murray of Washington, rather than Collins, would chair the powerful Appropriations Committee.
A longtime independent, Romney was the Republican governor of Massachusetts and a Republican nominee for president. In that presidential run, beset by doubts from voters about how conservative a Republican he was, he claimed to be “severely conservative” and to have had a change of opinion in favor of protecting unborn lives from abortion.
McMullin was the figurehead of a 2016 coordinated effort to depress Republican votes for the GOP nominee in a bid to elect Hillary Clinton as president. At that time, he claimed to be motivated by concern that Donald Trump was not pro-life enough and would not do enough to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand. After a report that Trump’s three appointments to the Supreme Court helped overturn Roe, McMullin put out a statement critical of their work.