Red states don’t come much redder than Utah, so Republican Senator Mike Lee’s campaign for reelection to a third term ought to be a foregone conclusion. In 2010 and 2016, he defeated his Democratic opponents by landslide majorities; this year, Utah Democrats didn’t even bother to nominate a challenger. Lee’s only opponent is Evan McMullin, an independent who never won a statewide election and is best known for an independent presidential campaign in 2016 that garnered a microscopic 0.5 percent of the popular vote.
Running in a Republican state, in a Republican year, to retain a Senate seat that hasn’t been won by a non-Republican since 1944, Lee should be cruising to an easy victory. Instead, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey, Lee is leading his challenger by only two percentage points. On a recent fundraising email from the Lee campaign, the subject line read: “I’m losing.”
If Lee does lose, it will be nobody’s fault but his own. Yet to hear Lee’s supporters and Republican commentators tell it, the reason he is struggling is that he hasn’t been endorsed by Utah’s other senator, Mitt Romney.
Romney long ago made it clear that he would stay neutral in the Lee-McMullin race, ostensibly on the grounds that “both are good friends.” He has stuck to that commitment, expressing no criticism of Lee and voicing no support for McMullin. Nevertheless, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee finds himself accused of betraying the Republican Party, sabotaging Lee’s reelection bid, and knowingly thwarting his party’s hopes to regain a Senate majority.
Earlier this month, Lee went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and implored Romney to “please get on board” and “help me win reelection.” He didn’t demur when Carlson falsely accused Romney of “actively … working against his fellow Utah Republican.” Instead, Lee pleaded on air for Romney’s endorsement and even urged him to “get your entire family to donate to me.”
Though none of Romney’s critics choose to mention it, the reason for his neutrality isn’t hard to decoct. As the Associated Press reported Saturday, the Senate race in Utah is “shaping up as a referendum on the direction that [Donald] Trump has taken the Republican Party.” Lee fulsomely supported Trump in the run up to the 2020 election and was actively involved afterward in the efforts to overturn the election results. Romney, on the other hand, condemned Trump’s “glaring” lack of character, refused to vote for him in 2020, and furiously denounced the violent Jan. 6 rampage as an “insurrection” that “the president has caused.” Romney voted to convict Trump during his two impeachment trials; Lee, like most of his Republican colleagues, voted both times to acquit.
Lee did eventually vote to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. But that was only after he’d spent weeks strategizing with Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows about ways to prevent Biden’s inauguration. As late as Jan. 3, 2021, Lee texted Meadows about how to get swing states carried by Biden to “submit competing slates of electors” that would back Trump. Though he now downplays his participation in the plot to nullify the election, his actions during those crucial weeks are perfectly clear.
When Romney voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment trial, he explained that it was because the former president had attempted “to corrupt the election by pressuring the secretary of state of Georgia to falsify the election results in his state” and to undermine “the counting of electoral votes.” Is it really a mystery why Romney declines to endorse a colleague who played a role in that corrupt endeavor?
For much of his political career, Romney was ideologically inconsistent and unreliable. The first time I ever wrote about him was in 1994. He was challenging Ted Kennedy in a Massachusetts Senate race and I was frustrated at the way he “came down firmly on both sides of almost every issue.” Lee, by contrast, always had the reputation of a serious and committed constitutional conservative — appalled by Trump, he even voted for McMullin for president in 2016.
But with Trump’s ascendancy to power, both men changed. Romney refused to join the MAGA cult of personality. Lee embraced it.
With a red wave coming, Lee is still favored to win reelection. But if he pulls it off, it won’t be with Romney’s help. Whatever else may be said about Romney, he won’t endorse a Trump sycophant. It took him a long time to find an issue on which he refuses to waver. Bravo to him for finding a good one.