Mitt Romney is leaving politics. Again.
Utah’s junior senator announced on Wednesday that he would not seek a second term. Mr Romney, 76, noted to reporters that he would be well into his 80s by the end of his next six years in office were he to run again, an otherwise innocent remark that may as well have been a shiv to the sides of the two frontrunners for the 2024 Democratic and Republican nominations.
Ever a creature of the political establishment, Mr Romney announced his move in an interview with The Washington Post, eschewing his hometown papers despite having just spent the entire month of August back in Utah. Concurrently with the interview’s publication, he released a short video message addressed to Utahns on Twitter.
The GOP centrist stalwart was in true form as he announced his retirement. In the Post interview, he derided his own party’s voting base, accusing them of falling for a “populist demagogue” message in either Donald Trump or his would-be replacement, Ron DeSantis.
“It’s pretty clear that the party is inclined to a populist demagogue message,” he complained.
Then, moments later, he appeared in a gaggle of reporters broadcast on CNN, where he broke from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s timid response to the House impeachment inquiry launched this week and berated the job that conservatives had done gathering “evidence” of Joe Biden’s supposed wrongdoings.
"I haven’t heard any allegation that would rise to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor,” he told reporters in his office.
Romney on the impeachment inquiry: "I haven't heard any allegation that would rise to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor." pic.twitter.com/APxbV8tFWZ
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) September 13, 2023
Mr Romney, once governor of deep-blue Massachusetts, exploded onto the national political stage in 2011 and 2012. In that election, he was the moderate alternative to a ever-changing list of right-wing firebrands seeking the GOP presidential nomination, and eventually came out on top before losing the general election to an incumbent Barack Obama. That year, he won notoriety and was painted as an out-of-touch billionaire after he accused nearly half the country of supporting Democrats because of a supposed victimhood mentality, which he linked to government assistance for poor families and those on Medicare/Medicaid.
"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care,” he told a room full of donors in 2012.
Then, the Utah senator carved out a John McCain-esque legacy for himself during a short career in the Senate. Coming to office under the Trump presidency, Mr Romney befuddled Democratic critics and enraged conservatives by cutting through the noise during both impeachments of Donald Trump, eventually supporting Mr Trump’s removal as early as the Spring of 2020. By doing so, he became the very first member of a major party to ever vote for removal of a president from his own party.
He also drew distinction by embracing the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
After taking office, he emerged as both a sword and a shield for the Republican Senate leadership establishment. Willing to throw punches at both the right and the left, Mr Romney became an ally of Mr McConnell; the two apparently bonded over their shared view that Donald Trump is an “idiot”. His election to the Senate froze the GOP’s Trump-beholden right wing out of a seat in the upper chamber, protecting Mr McConnell’s ever-important numbers advantage within his own party.
He had no qualms about battling the Senate’s contingent of Trump loyalists, either. At one point, he told The Atlantic of Mr Trump’s hand-picked candidate for the 2022 Ohio Senate race: “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than JD Vance.”
Now, his departure is likely to leave a very uncomfortable void to fill within the GOP caucus. Remember the pitched GOP primary battles in Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2022? Utahns can expect their own version to play out over the next year, as Donald Trump and his inner circle will inevitably seek to install a loyalist in the seat over any #NeverTrump establishment-aligned “RINO” (their words) candidate supported by Mr Romney or his allies in the state. Right now, that anointed successor looks to be Brad Wilson, speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.
His longtime nemesis celebrated on Truth Social, declaring it “fantastic” news.
Mr Romney’s decision puts an end to one of the most interesting political journeys in modern politics, and sets up a bruising battle for his seat that will serve as a perfect test of Mr Trump’s endorsement strength going forward; his first since the 2022 election cycle.
That test of Mr Trump’s strength, as repetitive as it may seem, is all the more important this cycle given two important factors: the criminal prosecutions of Mr Trump, and the fact that the candidates who received his endorsements in 2022 were largely painted as wingnuts and self-sabotaging failures who cost their party a shot at a Senate majority under a Democratic president.
The stakes in Utah are as high as they’ve ever been for Republicans, and especially Mitch McConnell. As the Senate GOP leader battles questions about his physical well-being and age, he could be up for a tough proxy battle — and another public confrontation with the man who may well win his party’s nomination.