While Utah has proved more resistant to Trumpism than most other red states—the president won there in 2016 with a little more than 45 percent of the vote—political experts and activists in the state say that Romney may have to walk a fine line with the president to keep his constituents happy.
“I think, in general, Utahns value agreeableness,” Jon Cox, a former senior adviser to Republican Governor Gary Herbert, told me. “They want elected leaders to find solutions. They want them to get along. But in this particular case, that’s not the president’s modus operandi, so it’s jarring to people.”
Many Utah conservatives, Cox said, will want Romney to work with the White House where he can on issues that matter to the state, and to advance conventional Republican policy goals. But, he said, “I don’t think Utahns want a rubber stamp.”
“I think Mitt sees himself in sort of a John McCain role,” Cox said. “How would you describe John McCain’s relationship with the president? It was a little bit of a frenemy relationship.”
He noted that Romney has publicly signaled his independence from the president a few times in recent weeks. Shortly before the election, Romney published an essay on his campaign website criticizing at length Trump’s vilification of the news media. When Jeff Sessions resigned as attorney general, Romney tweeted that it was “imperative” that Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation be allowed to proceed unimpeded. And a couple weeks later, Romney put out a statement calling the president’s response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “inconsistent … with basic human rights, and with American greatness.”
“I think it’s a hint of more to come,” Cox said of the statements.
Of course, some Utahns will want to see more than disapproving tweets from Romney. In liberal enclaves such as Salt Lake City and Park City, a growing appetite exists for a more confrontational approach to the president.
Eric Biggart, the chair of a liberal Mormon group called LDS Dems, told me that he wants Romney to protect the Affordable Care Act, and take concrete steps to oppose Trump’s immigration agenda. “We implore Senator Romney to remember the admonition of Church leaders who continually champion compassionate immigration policy,” Biggart said. “That doesn’t involve gassing children.”
But Biggart added that he isn’t holding his breath. “We have very low expectations for Romney,” he said. “And frankly, because congressional Republicans have done so little to slow [Trump’s] agenda, any pushback at all will unfortunately be hailed as taking a stand.”
Romney was famously outspoken against Trump in 2016, calling him a “phony” and worrying that his election would result in “trickle-down racism.” But his reviews of the president’s first two years in office have been more mixed. Determined not to let himself be defined in relation to Trump, he centered his campaign message on Utah-specific issues—positioning his policy vision as an alternative to Trump-style nationalism without presenting himself as a “Never Trump” bomb-thrower.