There is no one like Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate—and there probably won’t be anyone any time soon.
The outgoing Utah Republican, a rare GOP critic of Donald Trump who twice voted to impeach the former president, is unlikely to have a successor as committed to fighting his party’s de facto leader like him. And even if Utah elects another Trump critic to replace Romney in 2024, that person will most likely not have the same moral authority that Romney did during his single term.
The result will almost certainly be a gaping hole in the already small group of Republicans willing to speak with moral clarity about Republicans’ rapid slide into authoritarianism and demagoguery.
“As a moral voice in the Senate, Mitt is irreplaceable,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost on Thursday.
“Mitt has a strong moral character and often challenges people to look at an issue beyond short-term politics,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), another member of the anti-Trump caucus in the upper house. “You always want to have someone like that around.”
Romney, 76, said he was retiring because of his age and did not want to serve into his 80s. But the former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate was already facing rumors of a primary challenge from at least one Republican to his right, as well as others more closely tied to the MAGA movement.
These challenges would likely only have intensified. Romney has been a popular target for far-right Republicans who objected to his impeachment votes, his bipartisan deals and his general hostility toward Trump, who is currently the front-runner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in the year Romney would run in the second Semester.
“Does he want to undergo a colonoscopy that would win him re-election?” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP operative who briefly served as deputy campaign manager for Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. “Given the stature he maintains in his career – as head of the U.S. Olympics and as head of Bain [Capital]Whether he’s a governor, a U.S. senator, or a presidential candidate, no matter what people think about his policies, he still stands as a statesman in the political ecosystem, and degrading himself in the quest for re-election probably isn’t the most tempting option to that point in his career.”
Riverton, Utah, Mayor Trent Staggs, who launched a campaign against Romney in May, tweeted shortly after Romney’s announcement: “Now let’s replace America First’s biggest critic with its biggest ally!”
“I heard from so many Utahns that they were just done… They wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney.” Staggs told right-wing influencer Benny Johnson. “I think he left the Republican Party some time ago.”
Romney’s resignation will open the door to more candidates. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson had already formed a Senate exploratory committee before Romney’s announcement. Wilson led the House GOP caucus as members weighed a resolution to censure Romney for his 2020 impeachment vote. Republicans instead chose a Proclamation thanking Trump for his work on specific issues “Critical for Utah.”
Rep. John Curtis, one of the state’s four Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, tweeted that he was encouraged to run for Romney’s seat. Like all but ten Republicans in the House of Representatives, Curtis did not vote to impeach Trump following the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. But he said Trump deserves some of the blame. “I think it’s clear that he has some responsibility” Curtis said a week after the attack, adding that he didn’t like what he called the rushed timeline of the Democratic-led trial.
A source close to former CIA agent Evan McMullin — an independent who launched an unsuccessful campaign for Senate last year against Republican incumbent Mike Lee — told HuffPost that McMullin is encouraged to consider running again.
Romney’s electoral chances in Utah, one of the reddest states in the country, were questionable given recent precedent. Eight of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump on Jan. 6 either did not run for re-election, most likely out of fear of a primary challenge, or lost the election. like former Rep. Liz Cheney, who represented Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat until she lost a 2022 primary to Harriet Hageman by nearly 40 points.
In Utah this month, Becky Edwards, a Republican who rejected Trump in 2020 and voted for Joe Biden insteadnarrowly lost a special election to fill the seat of outgoing Rep. Chris Stewart (R), even though voters appeared ready to elect a non-MAGA Republican.
Like Cheney, Romney was not elected as a Trump antagonist. But the 2012 GOP presidential nominee has always had a tumultuous relationship with Trump and criticized him during the 2016 primaries — which in turn led to Trump mocking Romney’s 2012 election loss call him “one of the stupidest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.” However, in 2018, Romney accepted Trump’s support for his current seat.
Romney’s departure from the Senate puts an exclamation point on the transformative shift within the GOP from the party’s once ascendant Ronald Reagan-oriented wing to the MAGA supporters of Trump and his strongman persona.
“Parties change. The Democratic Party has changed. The Republican Party has changed. I’m comfortable where I am, and if he’s not comfortable where he is, I understand that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who underwent his own metamorphosis from a harsh critic of Trump to an ally by Romney on Thursday.
“Parties change. The Democratic Party has changed. The Republican Party has changed.”
– Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the chamber’s more conservative members, called Romney “out of step” with today’s GOP and said he disagreed with the idea that Republicans are not ready with their party to break, as Romney reportedly has, according to a forthcoming book by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. In the book, Romney criticizes Republican Senators Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) for their disingenuous support for Trumpand says his colleagues are afraid to speak out against the former president.
“That’s the nicest thing he said about me. You should see what he says privately,” Hawley said Thursday. “I liked the part where he said I was smarter than Ted Cruz.”
The reality is that as Romney and other dealmakers head toward exit, senators like Hawley and Cruz are increasingly poised to become the future of the GOP.
But Romney says he is confident that the tide will eventually turn to reason.
“I think the people of Utah will elect someone who represents mainstream Republican values,” he said Politically. “And I don’t think a MAGA Republican is going to get into the Senate.”