Romney, like other Trump skeptics, makes nice – for now

As Mitt Romney launches his bid to become the next US senator from Utah, the former presidential candidate is facing a reality confronting many onetime ‘Never Trumpers’ in the GOP: He and the president need one another.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Mitt Romney poses for a photograph as he greets students at Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah, Feb. 16, 2018. The 2012 Republican presidential candidate is running for the seat being vacated by retiring seven-term Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R).

President Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement tweet to Mitt Romney on his US Senate bid from Utah should come as no surprise.

Nor should Mr. Romney’s gracious reply to Mr. Trump. After all, the two men need each other.

As much as Trump is a maverick, he needs establishment Republicans like Romney to vote for his agenda in Congress and keep a fractious GOP together. And Romney needs that stamp of approval from the president, given Trump’s strong grip on the party’s base.

But don’t expect the Romney-Trump mutual admiration society to last. Because we’ve seen this movie before: Trump feuds with a high-profile mainstream Republican politician, they later decide to patch things up and work together, then an inevitable conflict arises and drama ensues.

Call it “Never Trump-ism” meets reality.

Romney is practically Republican royalty, as the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, former governor of Massachusetts, son of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, and uncle of the current GOP chairwoman. During the 2016 campaign, Romney was a full-blown “Never Trumper” – regularly denouncing Trump, whose personal conduct and style contrast starkly with Romney’s.

But Trump is now president, and he and Romney play for the same team, the GOP. So the two have buried the hatchet, at least for now.

Similar scenarios have played out over and over again among Republicans leery of Trump, particularly in the Senate, where the party’s super-slim majority means every vote is crucial. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who once called the Trump White House an “adult day care center,” decided to retire from the Senate, but is now reportedly rethinking that decision – and wooing Trump.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a Trump antagonist, until they decided to work together on key issues – even playing golf together. Now they’re on the outs again over a disagreement on immigration policy. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has delivered full-throated denunciations of the president from the Senate floor, and is retiring in January, but he still votes with his party – and therefore Trump – almost all the time.

“Being anti-Trump doesn’t mean being anti-Trump on everything,” says Dan Schnur, a former top aide to Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000.

Choosing when to disagree

Even the leading Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, agrees with Trump on some things, Mr. Schnur notes. So to be a Trump-era Republican standard-bearer, even one with significant reservations about Trump, means choosing when to disagree and when not.

“You see Romney trying to establish that ground,” says Schnur, now a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. “Others have too. But what they’re struggling with is a sense of letdown from the Never Trumpers, if they don’t take on Trump on every front, every day.”

At the heart of this challenge lies an important fact: Most Republican voters support Trump, particularly dedicated Republicans who are more likely to vote in primaries. Even in Mormon-dominated Utah, where independent candidate Evan McMullin won 21.5 percent of the vote in the 2016 election to Trump’s 45.5 percent, Trump’s overall job approval today is in the mid-40s – and much higher among Republicans.

Across Republican America, GOP candidates for the Senate, in particular, face the same reality. It’s Trump’s party, and they go against him at their peril. Senator Flake has a dismal job approval rating in Arizona. He’s a conservative, so Democrats don’t like him. And he’s vocally anti-Trump, so he has alienated many Republicans. Had he chosen to run for reelection, he may well have lost in the primary.

In Tennessee, Corker announced last September that he would not run for reelection, but is now reportedly reconsidering. The challenge lies in the campaign of conservative Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is showing no inclination to drop out – and has reportedly received encouragement from Trump. Corker supporters maintain that the seat could be lost to the likely Democratic nominee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, if Corker’s not on the ballot in November.

But if Corker does jump in, he could spark an ugly and expensive Republican primary, with gender also in the mix – all of which could harm the GOP’s effort to hold the Senate. Corker is chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but that may not be enough to win over Tennessee Republicans. With few exceptions, members who decide to leave can’t unring that bell.

Romney’s trajectory

Romney’s life as a Never Trumper has followed a different trajectory. He seemed to come to terms with Trump’s victory soon after the election – at least enough to join Trump for dinner and discuss the job of secretary of State. Since then, Trump and Romney have kept their distance, with Trump reportedly encouraging Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah to run for reelection. When Senator Hatch announced his retirement, it wasn’t clear how Trump would feel about his former antagonist trying to position himself as one of 100 in the Senate.

But on Monday evening, Trump answered that question with a full-throated endorsement. Romney “will make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch, and has my full support and endorsement!” Trump tweeted.

Romney has made clear he’s taking nothing for granted, and intends to run a hyper-local campaign. The chairman of the Utah GOP raised eyebrows last week when he essentially accused Romney of being a carpet-bagger – like Hillary Clinton, when she ran for the Senate from New York in 2000. Party chair Rob Anderson later apologized.

But Romney got the message. In his reply tweet to Trump Tuesday morning, he thanked the president, then quickly pivoted to the people he aims to represent in Washington.

“I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah,” Romney tweeted.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are looking forward to welcoming a Senator Romney.

“I think he’d be terrific,” says Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “He’s a well known quantity. I think he’d find it a little bit of a culture shock dealing in a collegial body like the Senate where it’s not built for speed, shall I say. If he wins the election I’ll look forward to serving with him.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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