Thursday, October 04, 2018

Utah U.S. Senate- Race of the Day

33 Days Until Election Day

Utah U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Open
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Safe Republican

There are numerous storylines of interest in regards to this contest that have little to do with the almost certain eventual outcome. The 84 year old President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate is retiring after more than 40 years in office, he himself a one-time long-shot Presidential candidate, and his likely replacement is a man, just 13 years younger, who came far closer to the Presidency himself. Is the desire to be a freshman U.S. Senator simply a bookmark to end a political career or a launching pad to bigger things?

Utah is perhaps the most Republican state in America as the GOP dominates at all levels statewide, and receives massive voter support throughout the state with the exception of the urban center of Salt Lake City. However, the heavily Mormon state did not take well to Donald Trump during his Presidential candidacy in 2016 for a variety of reasons. Some even wondered if the Electoral Votes of the state may be in doubt as a Utah resident and LDS Church Member ran as an Independent candidate. Evan McMullen would eventually receive 22 percent of the vote in the state, but still not enough to finish higher than third place. Donald Trump did win the state, with a plurality of the vote, about 18 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. Four years earlier, the GOP victory margin was about 49 points.

That was when the GOP Presidential nominee was Mitt Romney however, the first ever Mormon to appear on a national ticket. Any Republican would have easily won the state, but Utahns felt a special affinity to Romney, who had long family roots in the state, and who attended college there, and served as the highly popular CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. By this time, one of Romney's sons and his family were also living in Utah, and the younger Romney was being talked about himself as a potential future statewide candidate there.

Politics had been in the family blood of the Romneys after all, in addition to success in the business world. As a teenager in Michigan, Mitt Romney saw his father elected Governor of the state. After that, George Romney twice sought an opportunity to be the Republican Presidential nominee but was unsuccessful. He later served in the Cabinet of Richard Nixon. Even more so, Romney's mother Lenore was defeated in a landslide when she ran for the U.S. Senate from Michigan in 1970.

After starting a family of his own in Massachusetts, where he achieved great success in the world of venture capital, Romney launched his first bid for political office in 1994 as the Republican U.S. Senate nominee against Ted Kennedy. For a time it looked like the young attractive candidate, who positioned himself as a moderate Republican, had a chance to knock off a legend in the state's politics, from the most famous family political dynasty around. While 1994 was a strong year for Republicans, Massachusetts was still Kennedy Country and Romney was defeated. He passed up other opportunities to run for office, and in 2002 relocated to Utah for a successful stint guiding the once troubled Olympic Games bid, as his wife Ann was also dealing with an MS diagnosis, which would eventually go into remission.

Romney received so many plaudits for his turnaround of the SLC Olympics that Massachusetts Republicans worked to quickly draft him to run for Governor to save the office. He entered the race, pushing aside an unpopular acting incumbent Republican, and then won a competitive general election in November of 2002,  never an easy feat for a Massachusetts Republican. Romney had an ambitious agenda as Governor, and had to work with an overwhelmingly Democrat legislature. He also seemed to move more towards the right during these years, with his eye on a potential Presidential run. The Governor did not seek reelection, which might have been a difficult feat in the state considering how he had shifted positions on issues like abortion, but ran for President in the 2008 cycle. He was able to garner support from many conservatives, but ultimately, the establishment was behind John McCain and his foreign policy credentials. The two men had some spats on the campaign trail but ultimately became good friends. Still Romney's considerable wealth made it impossible for McCain to select as his running-mate.

After Barack Obama defeated John McCain, Romney was thought of as the traditional "next in line" Republican candidate for 2012. In retrospect, his path to winning the nomination against a fairly weak field was not that difficult, but there were burgeoning signs of a populist movement in the party, that remained suspicious of the establishment or "elitist" Romney as well as some lingering prejudice surrounding his Mormon faith. The general election though saw Republicans mostly united around Romney and for months, it looked like he had a very good chance of making Obama a one-term President. His performance in debates was impressive, but defeating an incumbent President, who is also an historic political figure was a tough task to do, especially with an east coast hurricane temporarily overshadowing the Presidential campaign and costing the Republican momentum. Obama won almost all of the battleground states by close margins, en route to a second term. Romney graciously conceded the election and most anticipated he was finished with political life, at least as a candidate.

In retrospect, with the revelations surrounding Russian interference in the U.S. elections of 2016 and all the talk surrounding relations between our country and Mr. Putin, we can look back at the significant disagreements the candidates had in the 2012 campaign. Romney said that Russia was America's biggest "geopolitical threat" and it was the practiced response of the Obama/Biden ticket and their party to laugh off such a statement and accuse Romney of living in the past or wanting to re-start the Cold War. Any honest Democrat will have to admit how wrong they were and how right Governor Romney was.

As 2016 approached, Romney who had mostly spent his post Governor years in homes he owned in California and New Hampshire, surprised many when he began to openly contemplate entering the 2016 Presidential contest for a third attempt. He quickly discovered that many of his former backers were more interested in giving a chance to some younger establishment figures in what looked like a strong field. Romney decided to stay out of the race and then Donald Trump happened. In a highly publicized speech in Utah, Romney, as the last GOP Presidential nominee, held nothing back in ripping into the party's new frontrunner, calling him a fraud and unworthy of the office. The former Governor asked Republicans to vote strategically for Trump's remaining opponents, but by this time it might have been too late. Trump of course fired back furiously at the candidate he had endorsed in the 2012 primaries and continued to refer to Romney as a "loser" and as someone who "choked" in the campaign.

Romney made it clear that Trump would not have his vote in the general election either, but still Trump won Utah and all other red states, in addition to several of the battleground states Romney failed to win. (Running against Hillary Clinton when she was seeking a third term for his party was an easier task than running against Obama as an incumbent.) Then, interestingly enough, Romney was up for consideration for the position of Secretary of State. While some thought Trump was putting him through the motions to "torture" him as someone who had been "disloyal", it looked like Trump was serious as the two men met. Romney publicly congratulated Trump on his win, and said optimistic things about him, but did not give into calls to apologize for or retract his harsh criticism from the campaign. Ultimately, Trump loyalists seemed to prevail upon the President-elect that he could not pick Romney for the job.

All the while, the 2018 cycle contained questions about the future of incumbent Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who was first elected in 1976. While an easy winner throughout his career, Hatch had seen his poll numbers go south, especially as conservatives in the state turned on him for his history of trying to reach across the aisle to work on legislation with Democrats, and as represented by his longtime friendship with the late Ted Kennedy.

Did Hatch want to run again? Could he actually be vulnerable to a Democrat in the reddest of states? Might he lose the nomination as his junior GOP colleague recently had in the state? A lot of ambitious Republicans were anxious to find out what Hatch wanted to do. Talk turned to Mitt Romney, who had relocated officially to Utah by this point. The incumbent seemed to want to run again but was open to the idea of stepping aside for Romney, his long-time ally. Polls showed that Romney could have easily beaten Hatch in a primary however, although it does not seem like Romney was giving that any thought.

Officials in the Trump White House though, such as Steve Bannon, had no use for Romney, and embarked on an effort to get Hatch to run again, simply to prevent Romney from replacing him. The incumbent, who did seem to want to hang on, moved closer to Trump at the same time. This was all an odd development for right-wingers to suddenly trying to embrace a politician they would have said they loathed not long ago. The bottom line was that Hatch's numbers in Utah were not good, and he agreed that he would not seek another term. Romney took little time getting into the race. Several Utah Republicans, especially on the right, expressed dismay that a political figure from another state, whom they held in ideological suspicious could be coronated, but Romney's standing as a Mormon trailblazer, by virtue of his Presidential bid, had him as someone who was hard to beat. Reading the tea leaves perhaps, Trump quickly endorsed him on Twitter, which likely surprised Romney and his team. The new Utah candidate had little choice but to accept it. Still, while Trump has endorsed Romney, Romney has never endorsed Trump.

On a side note, Romney's niece, Ronna McDaniel, of Michigan, was selected by Trump to be Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Needless to say, she has taken a different tact from her uncle and has strongly defended her new boss at every turn. Reportedly, she was asked by either Trump or those close to him to stop using Romney as part of her name.

Nonetheless, Romney has before and since entering the Senate race had a bit of an odd relationship with Trump. He was highly critical of the President's response to the Charlottesville riots which killed a woman, and re-iterated on the one year anniversary that "equivocation on racism" should be disqualifying politically. At many points in the Trump Administration, Romney has Tweeted or written statements on Facebook expressing profound disagreement with Trump policies, while also avoiding personal attacks. Still though, Romney has spoken to Utah reporters about what he sees as Administration successes and has claimed that on issues such as the economy, that Trump has performed better than he expected and has governed in a way similar to how Romney would have. While saying it was far too early to say if he would support a Trump reelection, he also made a statement in which he claimed that Democrats would not be able to deny him a second term. All of this caused some confusion for many, especially in the GOP, as to what exactly Romney's angle was. Never Trumpers were counting on Romney to come to Washington for this primary reason of being a moralistic conservative thorn in Trump's side and perhaps even challenge him for re-nomination. (After all, Romney is slightly younger than Trump and also younger than some of the top Democrat possibilities.)

First though, there was the matter of officially securing the U.S. Senate nomination. While the ultimate outcome was never really in doubt, Romney was challenged by State Representative and physician Mike Kennedy, who ran to the frontrunner's right. In fact, at the state April GOP convention, which tends to be dominated by Tea Party types and conservative activists, Kennedy narrowly got more votes than Romney, as all other hopefuls failed to qualify for a primary ballot. This was not a huge surprise though as other establishment figures in the Utah GOP had done a good deal worse at prior conventions, and in most cases, went on to easily win the much higher participation primary. In June, Romney easily won the primary 71-29 and 24 years after losing to a different Kennedy in a Senate election, could enjoy the headlines nonetheless. It needs to be noted though that there are voters on the right in Utah, including LDS Church members, who still consider Romney a "RINO" and unacceptable. While Romney will win this race solidly, he is not going to come close to the 73 percent he received statewide as the 2012 Presidential nominee, because the Republican Party, under Trump has changed so much since then.

Of course, there are still Democrats in Utah. At their May convention, the party nod went easily to Salt Lake City Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who twelve years earlier had tried to follow in her father's footsteps in running for Mayor of Salt Lake City, a job he once held. She may be a credible candidate, as far as Utah Democrats go, but she stand virtually no chance in a general election, even with some voters on the right who like Trump planning to skip voting for Romney, just like he did not vote for Trump.

Even though Romney is a distinct front-runner in the contest, he is not ducking opportunities to debate his Democrat opponent. The Republican nominee has garnered a reputation for being a strong debater (at least since his long ago tussles with Ted Kennedy), and his one general election victory ever was against a female opponent.

So, while the end result of a GOP hold is not in much doubt, there is the fairly unprecedented circumstance here of a 71 year old, who grew up in one state, and governed another, being elected to represent yet another. While Romney is not exactly a Utah carpetbagger, it also has to be said that this is likely the only state in America (perhaps with significantly Mormon Idaho as an exception) where he could be elected to office. He would been seen as too conservative a Republican for the blue states, where he could possibly win Republican nominations, and the Trump acolytes would prevent him from being nominated in the conservative red states.

For me, I sort of wonder why Romney, whom I twice was proud to back for President (and would have done so a third time had he run), wants to be a freshman U.S. Senator, when he has such a comfortable life elsewhere, with 20 plus or however many grandchildren by now. Does he just want to serve the public in anyway that he can, especially after spending so many years trying to get to Washington D.C? Is this about knowing he could end his political career with a victory? Winning an office that neither parent held or simply accomplishing the task he first set out to do in 1994? While Barry Goldwater returned to the Senate via a new election after being a Presidential nominee, and while Hubert Humphrey was elected to the Senate again after serving as Vice President and then losing a Presidential bid, what Romney is doing, in seeking to enter the Senate for the first time, as an ex-major party Presidential nominee is unprecedented.

For most, the relationship in Washington between Romney and Trump will get a good deal of attention next year, especially with a Senator like John McCain having passed away and Jeff Flake and Bob Corker not seeking new terms. Is Romney going to become a Trump ally (at least as it relates to issues affecting Utah) or is he going to stand up for a different direction nationally for the party and the country? I happen to hope it's more of the latter, although of course Romney will vote for conservative policies, even if that means he "sides" with the Administration on matters.

Some have said that Romney may even become the Senate GOP Leader before too long. Others think he is building up a power base to seek the Presidency again, either against or after Trump leaves the scene under some political or legal scenario. (I am not sure how becoming a Senator now fits into that long-range plan.)

Whatever happens, Donald Trump has gone on record recently referring to Romney as a "straight shooter" and those may be words he comes to regret.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 
19 D (9 Safe, 5 Likely, 2 Leans, 3 Tossup)
10 R (3 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans, 5 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:
42 D (23 holdovers, 9 Safe, 5 Likely, 2 Leans, 3 Tossup)
52 R (42 holdovers, 3 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans, 5 Tossup)


At 8:02 PM, Blogger Steve Boudreaux said...

Bold Prediction: Romney is likely staying in the United States Senate for 12 years.


Post a Comment

<< Home