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Romney aides irked by Lee plea for support, highlighting GOP divide in Utah

The interview and its fallout marked an escalation of election-year tensions in the unusual relationship between Utah’s two Republican senators

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit on July 22, in Tampa. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
12 min

ALPINE, Utah — Mitt Romney’s aides were annoyed this week after his fellow senator from Utah, Mike Lee, pleaded with Romney to “get on board” and support his reelection bid during a cable news interview, according to two people in contact with his staff.

The interview and its fallout marked an escalation of election-year tensions in the unusual relationship between Utah’s two Republican senators — one who has often aligned himself with former president Donald Trump and another who has been one of the most prominent Trump critics in the GOP. Their complicated dynamic has become a focal point in the final weeks of Lee’s reelection bid, a more competitive race than many anticipated.

The strains over Romney’s decision to stay out of the contest underscore how the race is testing the GOP’s unity, as independent challenger Evan McMullin tries to assemble a big-tent coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans while running against “political extremes” and promising more centrist leadership similar to Romney’s.

For months, Romney had made it clear — both in private and publicly — that he would stay neutral in Lee’s run for a third term against McMullin. Romney wasn’t swayed by state GOP chairman Carson Jorgensen, who said he pressed Lee’s case with Romney early this year and again last week with Romney’s staff. “A Republican candidate should be supporting their Republican colleagues, and that’s all there is to it,” Jorgenson said in an interview.

Now, Lee was on national television urging Romney to reconsider in the final weeks, as some polling showed McMullin within striking distance of him in a ruby-red state. “All 48 of my other Republican colleagues are on board with me,” he said Tuesday on Fox News. “... It’s not too late, Mitt.”

Romney and Lee spoke after the segment, according to a person familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. But the stalemate over Romney’s endorsement appears unchanged.

On the campaign trail in Utah, Lee and McMullin have taken contrasting approaches. While McMullin praised Romney in a recent stump speech — saying he hopes to join him and other senators “finding compromise and common ground” — Lee never mentioned the other senator at another event that same day.

McMullin “talks nonstop about Romney,” said Kirk Jowers, a former legal adviser to Romney who is backing Lee. “Which has put an 800-pound gorilla in the room that is frustrating to both the Lee and Romney camps.”

Some blame Lee for pushing the issue: Romney aides are “so annoyed that Mike Lee won’t leave it alone,” said a person who speaks regularly with them. Like others interviewed for this story, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic more candidly.

Romney has explained his neutrality as a simple desire to stay out of a race between two “good friends” of his. “I’ve worked with Mike a lot and appreciate the work we do together,” he told Politico over the summer.” When Romney ran in 2018, Lee stayed neutral in his contested primary — though he said he would back whoever emerged.

Romney’s office did not comment. Matt Lusty, a spokesman for Lee’s campaign, said in a statement that Lee “sees it as important for all members of the party to stand together” and “welcomes the public endorsement of all of his Senate GOP colleagues, including Sen. Romney.”

McMullin said in an interview that he appreciates Romney’s neutrality and said, “I would approach the job of Senator much in the same way he does.”

A critic of Trump who ran against him in 2016, McMullin convinced Democrats not to nominate a candidate this year and has said he will not caucus with either major party, despite identifying as conservative.

The GOP’s fractures over the 2020 election hang over the race, with McMullin looking to siphon away Republicans uncomfortable with Trump and his false claims that the election was stolen and unsuccessful efforts to overturn the results.

McMullin criticizes Lee for his efforts to help Trump assemble objections to the 2020 results, documented in leaked texts to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Romney also diverged from Lee over Trump and the election’s aftermath, voting to remove Trump from office for his conduct.

“One person was voting for impeachment; the other person was texting to try to help pull off an end to the American experiment,” said Stuart Stevens, a former top strategist for Romney who now works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

Lee, who ultimately voted to certify the election, said in a statement after Romney’s vote to convict Trump that “there is enough room in the Republican tent for both of us.”

One person close to Romney said his neutrality in the race “could have been a nonissue” and said those close to Romney were confused by Lee’s comment in the Fox interview. “The notion that Mitt Romney can somehow win or lose this race for him is just absurd,” the person said.

Lee is favored to win in a state that Trump carried by 20 points two years ago. But he and McMullin are still in a fierce fight for more moderate voters, said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, which partnered on polling for the race. The share of undecided voters has ticked up since midsummer, he said.

“It is unique that we have an unaffiliated candidate that has come so close, that has been able to not just capture those Democrats but a portion of Republicans said Perry. “And that’s why it’s getting nationwide attention.”

GOP divisions over the election were on display at a recent rally for Lee in southern Utah, where a man named Steve Smith stood up on a picnic table to brandish a homemade sign urging Lee to “FIX 2020″ and questioning his conservative credentials.

“RHINOS?” the sign read, with an arrow pointing toward the stage. It was a misspelling of the acronym for “Republicans in Name Only.”

Lee voted to certify Trump’s loss last year after telling Meadows that states had not given lawmakers legal grounds to object and that they needed “the Constitution on our side.”

One woman yelled at Smith to sit down. Some people tried to block the sign by standing in front of it. “You’re going to put Evan McMullin in office!” someone in an “I LIKE MIKE” shirt said in disgust later as Smith told fellow rallygoers it was useless to vote.

But others joined him. “Yeah, fix 2020!” a woman shouted. Another tapped Smith on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs up on her way out.

“We need to put the Senate back in Republican hands,” Lee said at the event, where he blamed Democrats’ spending for soaring inflation. “I can tell you this, my opponent will not be part of that Republican majority.”

Lee was elected in 2010 as a trailblazer for the anti-establishment tea party movement and once shared McMullin’s opposition to Trump. A lawyer by training, who sometimes whips out a pocket Constitution, he said he cast a “protest vote” for McMullin in the 2016 presidential race and criticized Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants, saying he had particular concerns as a Mormon, another member of a “religious minority church.”

But Lee came to embrace Trump, like many others in his party, even comparing Trump to the Book of Mormon leader Captain Moroni at a rally in 2020 — comments that drew a backlash from some fellow Mormons. The words now feature in anti-Lee billboards and an ad released this week by McMullin’s campaign. Defending his comparison back in 2020, Lee acknowledged that some people were offended but said Trump had “far exceeded” his expectations.

McMullin, a former CIA officer and policy director for the House Republican Conference, has remained highly critical of Trump. He won less than one percent of the vote nationwide in his 2016 presidential bid but more than 20 percent of the vote in Utah — where he was born and where many Mormons were turned off by Trump and his crude comments about women. More than half the state’s residents, including McMullin, belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The aftermath of the 2020 election only deepened McMullin’s concern about the country’s direction, he said, as mob outraged over Trump’s loss stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I think the extremes have gotten far too powerful in our politics,” McMullin said in the interview. “We saw on Jan. 6 that, you know, some of them are willing to attempt to topple American democracy in order to hold on to power against the will of the people, and we have a senator here in Utah who was at the center of that plot.”

One of Lee’s Republican primary opponents, Becky Edwards, also criticized the texts to Meadows that surfaced this spring, in which Lee described extensive efforts to contact state lawmakers who could appoint alternate slates of electors.

Lee has defended his actions, saying he backed off when it became clear no legitimate alternate electors had materialized. Trump even turned his ire on Lee in the lead-up to Jan. 6, publicly declaring himself “a little angry” as Lee planned to help certify the results.

Still, the text messages weighed on voters like James Harrison, who showed up to a small backyard gathering with McMullin in the suburbs around Salt Lake City. “His whole shtick is kind of like he’s a principled constitutionalist,” said Harrison, 34, a Republican who voted for Trump in 2020 and quickly regretted it. “And then he went entirely against that.”

Harrison was the first to ask McMullin a question: “Could you name one really positive policy from both President Trump and President Biden that you’d like to see continued?”

“I like that question,” McMullin said, saying he appreciated Trump’s support for a “light regulatory burden on our economy” and Biden’s support for Ukraine.

Nathan Jones, a longtime Republican who balked at Trump, said he’d finally found a reason to get involved in politics: “It’s like a freight train that’s going, you know, 100 miles an hour and nothing’s stopping it and we’re just getting more and more divided, and this guy might be some brakes on that.” He asked for yard signs on his way into the event and vowed to go knock on doors.

Lee and his supporters denounce McMullin as a Democrat in disguise, and some Republicans who shared his distaste for Trump were still distrustful of McMullin or worried that he could help Democrats gain the edge in a narrowly divided chamber. At his event in southern Utah last week, Lee emphasized that his opponent endorsed Biden in 2020 and claimed he has nothing but criticism for Republicans.

If the race was truly competitive, said Lee spokesman Lusty, national Democratic political action committees would have invested. He said the campaign’s internal polls have Lee leading comfortably.

But Lee and his allies have been sending a more urgent messages to their supporters, even as they mock “McMuffin.”

“Some people might think, ‘Oh, come on, this is a Republican reelect in the bright red state of Utah,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a close friend of Lee’s, told the crowd of hundreds who turned out on a recent morning. “How can this be competitive?’ I’m here to tell you right now — this is a real race. I don’t know how to ring the bell, the alarm bell, more loudly.”

The question of exactly how much Romney’s input could sway people has divided those in the senator’s orbit. While some were dismissive, Jowers argued in an interview that for the sizable group of voters still on the fence, “a Romney endorsement would be potentially definitive.”

Reed Galen, a Utah-based strategist and Trump critic who left the GOP in 2016, said Romney’s decision to not weigh in was, itself, “a big blow … he’s tacitly said, ‘if you want to vote for Evan, it’s okay with me.’” And Jorgensen, the state party chair said Romney’s decision to stay out has upset many Republicans in the state: “I get a lot of emails saying, you know, why isn’t Mitt supporting Mike?” he said.

Many political observers expressed confusion at Lee’s decision to lobby for an endorsement with Fox host Tucker Carlson, a Romney detractor who lobbed more criticisms during the interview. Some saw it as a play to the Republican base.

“You have your fellow Utah Republican senator working against you,” Carlson told Lee. “How did this happen?” On the screen: A picture Romney with a cartoon mustache and the caption “Pierre Delecto strikes again,” a mocking reference to Romney’s pseudonym on a once-secret Twitter account.

Trump took up the cause a day later, saying in a statement that Lee was “abused, in an unprecedented way, by a fellow Republican senator from his own state,” though Lee also declined to endorse then-Sen. Orrin G. Hatch for reelection in 2012, when they were colleagues.

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