There is no love between Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, the two Republican senators from Utah.
Lee, a conservative stalwart, has always marched to his own drumbeat of conservative conviction. He knows the Constitution perhaps better than anyone in Congress. However, he sometimes lets his lawyerly sense of things trip up political instincts, as anyone who read his post-2020 election text messages with the Trump team could see.
Romney, the onetime GOP nominee for president, went into the Senate having to find some way to contain former President Donald Trump’s ire. But Romney, because of his own power base, did not really need Trump and, because of Utah politics, could be independent of Trump.
Lee, embraced by the conservative movement, had to navigate a man of whom he has regularly been critical. Romney never had to do that and undoubtedly disagrees with some of Lee’s navigation of the same issue.
Right now, a very vocal group that would not urinate on Romney were he on fire is enthusiastically praising Romney for refusing to get behind Lee’s re-election campaign. Here, though, is the frank and stark reality: Without Romney, Republicans may lose that seat.
In the last 48 hours, conversations with people familiar with credible polling in Utah tell me Evan McMullin’s attacks are having a significant impact on Lee and that Republican voters who have a strong preference for Romney might vote for McMullin.
Republicans, myself included, have largely dismissed McMullin, who is now surrounded by Democratic staff, Democratic consultants and Democratic donors. McMullin has embraced Democratic positions, including on abortion. He has embraced Democratic judicial picks, including President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court pick. Though McMullin is running as an independent, he will undoubtedly caucus with the Democrats who have funded and run his campaign.
While I understand the lack of love between Romney and Lee, Romney’s Republican colleagues might find themselves still in the minority if Romney does not endorse Lee. Pollsters who I find very credible tell me Romney-sympathetic Republican voters have largely been persuaded that McMullin is not the Democrat he undoubtedly is, and that Romney’s silence is a factor in voters leaning toward McMullin.
For his part, Lee needs to start educating voters about McMullin’s Democratic ties and make the case that given those ties, McMullin will owe the Democrats, perpetuate Biden’s agenda and potentially keep the Democrats in control of the Senate. Lee’s campaign needs to ramp up immediately and take this seriously.
Romney, for his part, will hopefully be mindful that those praising him now are not his friends. Likewise, Romney in the majority has a real chance of passing meaningful reforms of family policy he has long advocated for and that conservatives largely support.
It looks increasingly likely that the Republicans could take the Senate by one seat, but a Utah upset would not just be the turd in the punchbowl for Republicans on election night; it could be what keeps the GOP from the majority.
Sometimes the statesman also has to be a team player, and now would be a good time for Romney to do so. It could not only generate some goodwill with his Senate colleague and perhaps thaw that relationship, but it could also save the GOP from a surprise upset.
Lee’s efforts to hold his seat become ever easier if Romney supports him. That, from the polling I have seen, would be enough to get Romney’s own voters back into the Republican camp and save the GOP some money to be directed elsewhere.
It could also be that act of statesmanship that fosters a better working relationship between Utah’s two senators, both of whom could be in the majority in a few months.
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