Mitt Romney's comeback on the national stage, through the byway of his probable bid for the Senate in Utah, has prompted a sharp debate among Republicans over whether traditional political figures are still welcome as leaders of a party dominated by President Trump.
Many establishment voices, eager for a resurgence in the Trump era, have seized on the prospect of Senator Romney as a clean-cut Republican counterweight to the unorthodox and chaotic Trump presidency. Trump-aligned conservatives, meanwhile, have recoiled and said the party's base voters have moved on and would shun the former Massachusetts governor as an elite relic of the sort of conventional politics they rejected by embracing the reality television star-turned-president.
Both sides acknowledge that regardless of whether Romney, 70, runs this year for the seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Republicans nationally would continue to be consumed by identity debates, fallout from the party's balkanization and discord over what its voters want from its leaders — insider or outsider, polished or raw, champion of Wall Street or economic populist.
"Romney opens up the discussion, illustrating the fight for the soul of a fractured party," said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Wehner, who advised Romney's 2012 campaign, added: "Trump's failures have left him without an iron grip on the party, leaving an opening for different faces and people like Romney, an alternative approach."
On the right, however, activists who have a deep affinity for Trump's upheaval of the GOP said a Romney revival would represent if anything the gasp of an old order in a party captured by the president — calling the bloc of establishment Republicans united mostly by a loathing of Trump.
"Is Mitt-ism really a thing? There's conservatism. There's Rockefeller Republicanism. There's Trumpism. But I don't know that Mitt-ism is really a thing," said Andy Surabian, a political consultant and senior adviser to Great America Alliance, an independent pro-Trump group. Surabian has worked closely with former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has been trying to build support for outsider Republican candidates.
Surabian suggested that Romney and Trump's Beltway opposition lack a national constituency and that their power comes from inside Washington rather than from a groundswell of voters. Over the past year, Bannon has railed against Romney and questioned his honor, but Bannon's relationship with the president, and his political standing, unraveled over the publication of journalist Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury," a book that includes searing comments by Bannon about Trump's family.
And on Tuesday, Breitbart announced that Bannon would be leaving the news network, further diminishing his stature and power on the right.
Hatch, 83, announced last week that he would not seek an eighth term. Romney has not made definitive public statements about his plans, but Republicans close to him have said he has been considering a campaign for months and conferred with friends as Hatch finalized his decision.
On Monday, a Romney aide announced that the former governor was treated for prostate cancer last summer. "The cancer was removed surgically and found not to have spread beyond the prostate," the aide said in a statement. Romney's prognosis is "very good" and he was "treated successfully," according to a person close to him.
Romney allies are quick to say he would probably resist serving as a symbol of mainstream Republicanism, should he choose to mount a campaign. Although Romney has been one of the president's sharpest critics, they said he is also cautious and would see a Senate perch as a chance to concentrate on policymaking, taking defiant stands on Trump's conduct only when he deems necessary.
Romney's associates and advocates have been actively deliberating over how he could frame his candidacy and how to translate his values in a political arena that has changed markedly since he was the party's presidential nominee.
"Is there a market out there for a new type of leader in the Republican Party who is going to be very issue-focused and who is going to champion substance over flash, and try to serve as a moral center for the party? Is there a marketplace for that? Yes," said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, a former Romney staffer on his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. "The question is just how big of a marketplace."
Michael Steel, another former Romney staffer, said he sees Romney being welcomed back not because he is universally beloved but because of a need for balance in the Republican Party, with "both more traditional conservatives like Governor Romney and the more aggressive nationalistic elements personified by President Trump."
Romney notably weighed in last month ahead of Alabama's special U.S. Senate election, in which former state judge and GOP nominee Roy Moore was accused of initiating sexual contact with teenage girls years ago. "Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation," Romney tweeted. "No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity."
"He's an adult. My sense is he'd find areas of agreement with President Trump and when they had disagreements, he'd be respectful," said Karl Rove, a former senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush and supporter of Romney's 2012 bid. "He would provide stature in the Senate, and with a demonstrated ability to govern he'd be someone who could forge consensus or unify the caucus."
Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), a centrist Republican, said Romney has an opening to run without much hassle from Bannon because of Bannon's messy public clash with Trump.
"Bannon was the force that was going to be a problem, going after Romney in Utah as a power play," King said. But "Bannon being diminished by Trump diminishes the challenges that would face Mitt. It makes it easier."
Romney would be the clear front-runner in a Utah campaign. A Salt Lake Tribune poll last fall showed him with 44 percent support in a hypothetical eight-person field with no one else earning double-digit support. The state's electorate is unique: It's more conservative than grass-roots populist in its leanings — it gave an anti-Trump independent candidate 21 percent of the vote in the 2016 election — and is dominated by followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which counts Romney as one of its most prominent members. Romney also carries extensive goodwill there from his time running the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
A relatively high-profile Democrat, Salt Lake County Council member Jenny Wilson, is running for the seat and has said the victory of Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) last month would bring attention to her candidacy in a ruby-red state.
Romney's reliability as a Trump foe is dubious, which even some of his supporters concede. Months after denouncing Trump as a "con man" and "phony" in a March 2016 speech at the University of Utah during the Republican presidential primary race, Romney seriously considered joining the Trump administration, possibly as secretary of state, during the transition.
"I had a wonderful evening with president-elect Trump," a smiling Romney declared after a private dinner with Trump at an expensive New York restaurant where frog legs and chocolate cake were served. "We had another discussion about affairs throughout the world, and these discussions I've had with him have been enlightening and interesting and engaging."
Romney's remarks made the cadre of anti-Trump voices in his orbit cringe and worry that he was being pulled into what they saw as the reality-television-type audition drama as Trump prepared to take office. Romney, who was passed over for the top job at the State Department, returned to the position of Trump critic throughout 2017. When Trump said that counterprotesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville shared the blame for the mayhem that left a woman dead and many injured, Romney wrote on Facebook that Trump's comments "caused racists to rejoice."
Within Trump's circle, they are not cheering Romney's consideration — and Trump had urged Hatch to run again, according to people close to the president. But they question whether Romney would be a problem.
"I don't see him becoming an antagonist," said Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a Trump ally. "You look at Mitt's history, he came out early against Trump but didn't push the point after the nomination was secured. It's not his personality to be way out there."
Ruddy believes that Romney could be positioning himself for a 2020 presidential bid should Trump choose not to run for reelection, and thinks he would move carefully if he returned to national politics.
"Mitt's thinking 2020, get the stature," Ruddy said.
Longtime watchers of the GOP said the tensions about Romney were an iteration of battles that have been part of the Republican Party for decades, with the party at times tilting toward the establishment and at times away from it, and each side constantly trying to tug it in their direction.
"There have been splits between Main Street and Wall Street in the Republican Party since the beginning of the 20th century, going back to the rise of Wall Street corporations and concerns among the farmers and small businesses that their priorities weren't at the center of things," said Alvin S. Felzenberg, a historian of American conservatism who has worked in Republican politics. "It keeps going in the 1960s with Barry Goldwater versus Nelson Rockefeller."
Felzenberg added: "Romney would say he's not a Rockefeller Republican, a moderate trying to come back. But his father was that sort of Republican culturally and he's that sort of Republican — and they want back in."