But while Romney may not be joining the resistance quite yet, his allies argue that this circumspect strategy could be more productive in the long run.
Even as Trump has successfully conquered much of American conservatism, deep-red Utah has remained surprisingly resistant to his forays. In the 2016 primaries, Trump suffered his worst defeat in the state, finishing dead last behind even John Kasich. He ended up carrying Utah in the fall, but with just a paltry plurality of the vote—in a state that had backed Romney against Obama by nearly 50 points. And in the year since he took office, there has been little indication that the state’s Republicans feel pressured to board the Trump Train. When Trump rolled out his controversial travel ban, Utah’s governor went out of his way to tout the state’s history of welcoming refugees. Meanwhile, in last year’s special election to replace Representative Jason Chaffetz, the winner was a relatively moderate, business-friendly mayor who admitted that he hadn’t voted for Trump.
“I always laugh when people say we’re the reddest of red states,” said Rod Arquette, a popular conservative talk-radio host in Utah. “I don’t believe we are as conservative as people say we are. On some of the moral issues, we’re conservative. But I also think we’re willing to listen and try to solve problems. We have a culture of collaboration here.”
That culture has made headlines in recent years as policymakers, faith leaders, and activists across the political spectrum have worked together to come up with innovative approaches to immigration, homelessness, religious freedom, and LGBT rights. Many Utah Republicans believe their state offers a model for what post-Trump GOP governance might look like.
These dynamics help explain how Romney has managed to remain so popular in a heavily Republican state (one poll put his statewide favorability rating at 69 percent) while keeping his distance from a Republican president. And while a handful of obscure Republicans have expressed interest in challenging Romney, he is widely favored to win the primary and the general. As Arquette told me, “I think the coronation has already begun for Mitt Romney.”
Romney’s influence in the state was on full display this week, when Utah Republican Chairman Rob Anderson gave an interview to the Salt Lake Tribune harshly criticizing the Romney’s candidacy. “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here,” he told the paper, adding, “He has never been a Trump supporter.”
Instead of casting doubt on Romney’s chances at the seat, Anderson’s remarks were met with a swift and punishing backlash from Utah Republicans. One top elected official told me he was “shocked” by the comments. Another high-powered Republican called the interview “idiocy,” while a third charitably chalked it up to Anderson’s “anxiousness” and “inexperience.” (All three sources requested anonymity to offer candid assessments of a local party leader.) By day’s end, Anderson was forced into a full retreat, releasing a statement that praised Romney and expressed “regret” that his comments “came across as disparaging or unsupportive.”