The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Sen. Orrin Hatch won’t retire, Mitt Romney should shove him aside

Republicans who’ve repudiated President Trump need to start taking their party back.

Mitt Romney gives a speech denouncing President Trump, while Trump was still only a candidate, in March 2016 at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Love him or hate him (I’m admittedly in the first camp), Mitt Romney is a gentleman. That’s why he’s waiting patiently for senior Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah — in office more than 40 years — to decide on retirement before jumping into the 2018 Utah Senate race.

It’s admirable. It’s also time for Romney to shove Hatch aside.

Not because of Romney’s stature: Both men are GOP elder statesmen. Not because of Hatch’s Senate record: They’d probably vote the same way on the issues. But because 2018 is about one thing: President Trump. And while Hatch has acquiesced to the grotesque Trump status quo, Romney is one of the few marquee Republicans who has had the courage to call Trump out. If we’re going to save the party from the trash fire it has become, Republicans need to start having it out, and this is as good a place as any to start. If that means seven-term Hatch has to go, oh well.

Trump is a disaster. Although a tax-cut bill just passed in the Senate, for the moment, at least, he has yet to notch a major legislative win; his cronies are under investigation; he has trashed America’s allies while praising our adversaries; he has cuffed the Republican Party to Roy Moore, an alleged pedophile, and nearly every day, the president’s personal conduct debases the office he holds.

Romney tried to warn Americans about Trump in his March 2016 speech, when he denounced Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” whose “promises are worthless as a degree from Trump University,” and is “playing the American public for suckers.” When Trump couldn’t offer a shred of moral leadership in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Romney offered clarity, tweeting that in that awful confrontation, “One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.” On Monday, in response to the president’s de facto endorsement of Moore, Romney tweeted unequivocally that having “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation” and “No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”

[Sessions has done more for Trumpism than anyone. Trump still wants to ditch him.]

Republican senators continue to urge Senate candidate Roy Moore to end his campaign in Alabama amid allegations of sexual misconduct. (Video: Jordan Frasier, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Compare that with Hatch, who pretty much signed off on Trump’s endorsement of Moore, saying Monday, “I don’t think he had any choice but to do that” and adding: “That’s the only Republican we can get down there” after appearing with the president Monday in Salt Lake City as Trump encouraged him to run for reelection.

Though Hatch doesn’t fit the anti-establishment mold usually favored by Trump-whisperer Stephen Bannon — the person most to blame for Trumpism other than Trump himself — Bannon is, according to reports, considering his own endorsement of Hatch to thwart Romney.

Romney should wear Bannon’s contempt like a badge of honor.

I’ve run enough Republican campaigns to know as well as anyone that normally you don’t challenge an incumbent, like Hatch, who’s got 100-percent name ID, a fair amount of goodwill among his colleagues and a ton of money in the bank. But these aren’t normal times. If Hatch is cowed by Trump, then he’s begging for a challenger, and that challenger should be Romney.

In October, Dan Jones’s Utah poll found that only 9 percent of Utahns said Hatch should definitely run for his eighth term while 56 percent said he definitely should not. Even though Romney was a one-term governor of Massachusetts, 44 percent thought Romney should take Hatch’s place in the Senate. Politically, that’s a green light. Morally, the light gets no greener.

No, Romney’s not exactly a totem of “the Resistance.” When he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, he openly sought Trump’s endorsement; a year ago, he auditioned for the job as Trump’s secretary of state — both compromises that all politicians make. But at key moments, he’s been one of the few GOP leaders willing to speak truth, vis a vis the president.

[If you work for Trump, it’s time to quit]

And Utah is a perfect fit for him. He’s been out of the spotlight, but he’s as well-known as any Republican politician. Like Hatch, he’d be a Mormon running in a strongly Mormon state. Unlike Hatch, who has become just another reliable Republican vote, Romney’s evident distaste for the current administration is something in sorely short supply among Republicans in Congress.

I’ve spent limited time in Utah in my career, but when I’ve been there, I’ve been struck, every day, by Utahns’ decency, work ethic, common sense and, in particular, compassion for others. The state’s unique demographics, culture and politics make it a fascinating laboratory for conservatism, and Utah’s is a conservatism without the constant sense of grievance that marks the Trump-era GOP. (Plus, fry sauce is a national treasure.)

Rather than do battle with pro-Trumpers, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) are bowing out next year. But the future of the country is at stake. It’s time for a real Republican to show some spine and bow in, even if it means primarying someone whom Romney undoubtedly regards as a friend.

Utah Democrats have a weak bench, and their platform is an ideological mismatch for the state, so no matter what happens in a Republican primary, Republicans will ultimately win the seat. To put it in perspective, in the state House, Republicans have a 62-13 advantage; in the state Senate, it’s a 24-5 GOP advantage. Utah hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, and its last Democratic U.S. senator was Frank Moss, who lost to — you guessed it — Hatch. When he beat Moss in 1976, Hatch’s tagline was: “What do you call a Senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.”

Romney might want to keep that one handy.