85 year old Orrin Hatch has announced he’s not running for an eighth term to the U.S. Senate from Utah. For so many reasons, that’s a good thing.
Hatch has been a Trump sycophant of the first order. Hatch’s lavish praise (describing Trump as “one heck-of-a leader”) and subservient tone (calling Trump “the best president I’ve ever served under”) played to Trump’s well-documented need for incessant adulation. Not surprisingly, Trump publicly and audibly encouraged Hatch to run again.
But Sen. Hatch, whose unfavorable rating in Utah now exceeds his favorable rating read the tea leaves. He had long promised to retire after this term; it was time for him to keep that promise. Hatch’s decision to exit the senate will not sit well with Trump -- not because Trump has any genuine affection for the good senator – but because he can’t stomach the idea of Mitt Romney, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, replacing Hatch. By most accounts, Romney is interested in running for Hatch’s now-open seat and would be the prohibitive favorite if he announces.
Of course, Trump and Romney have had a tumultuous relationship, showcasing both their respective disdain for each other and their mutual willingness to pretend otherwise from time to time. When they occasionally and awkwardly embrace, the moments are wince-worthy. Trump-Romney defines the term “frenemy.”
Back in 2012 when Romney sought Trump’s endorsement for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump demanded Romney meet him for a photo op at a Trump casino to seal the deal. Romney complied. Team Romney draped the room in blue to conceal the garish trappings, but Trump got what he wanted – Romney appeared the supplicant. Trump proceeded to say nice things about Romney, and Romney returned the favor. Then both of them hurried off the stage, eager to put distance between them. Mrs. Romney, who accompanied her husband to the charade, looked like she was going to be ill.
Fast forward four years and Trump became the Republican frontrunner, seeking to succeed where Romney had failed. Romney lambasted Trump noting “[his] personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, [and] the absurd third grade theatrics." Trump, of course, hit back: "You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement [in 2012]. I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees.' He would have dropped to his knees."
Unlike most Republican poohbahs, Romney didn’t capitulate and endorse Trump after Trump secured the GOP nomination. He opted instead to support Evan McMullin, a third-party candidate, sparing little in his criticism of Trump.
Then, after the 2016 election, it was payback time. Trump dangled the Secretary of State position before Romney – and Romney, predictably, grasped. Romney gripped and grinned with the president-elect, engaging in a public courtship of the man he had justifiably condemned weeks earlier. Romney should have known better, but ambition got the better of him. Trump was Lucy with the football and Romney the hapless Charlie Brown. Rex Tillerson got the nod. Trump insiders claim that Trump never intended to offer Romney the job, but wanted to put him through his paces, torture him a bit, have him kiss Trump's ring.
Even now the Romney name grates on Trump. The Washington Post recently reported that, when Trump asked Romney’s niece Ronna Romney McDaniel to head the Republican National Committee, he requested she stop using her middle name in public. I don’t recall that Trump made the same request of Mike Huckabee’s daughter and Trump spin-mistress Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Some might wonder which Mitt Romney would show up in the senate chamber were he to win the office. Would it be the Romney who happily drinks Trump Kool-aid if there’s something in it for him? Or would it be the Romney who pulls no punches and calls Trump out on his odious behavior and utter lack of principles? Given his past willingness to “make up just to break up” with Trump, it’s hard to know the answer.
But the question may be premature. After all, before he can win a general election, Romney must secure the Republican nomination. It’s unlikely another GOP contender could defeat him, but it’s not impossible. Certainly, Donald Trump will look to recruit a strong challenger to Romney, someone in the lapdog mold of Orrin Hatch. And, even though Trump and Steve Bannon seem headed for a permanent split, Bannon and his ideological ilk will also be looking for an alternative.
If there is, in fact, an intramural contest, Romney will likely win; but we’ve seen other instances in which the GOP’s most zealous ideologues capture the flag. Look no further than the recent special election in Alabama where Republicans rejected the ultra-conservative incumbent Luther Strange and nominated the profoundly flawed and even more right-wing Roy Moore. Utah, like Alabama, is a ruby red state and – under ordinary circumstances, a Democrat would have little chance to win there. But it’s possible that a Republican civil war could produce another weak candidate - a Utah version of Roy Moore - for the general election.
The odds may seem very long, but Utah Democrats would be remiss were they not to recruit an exceptionally well-qualified senate candidate. There’s an old saying that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. It’s possible that Utah Republicans will present Utah Democrats with an opportunity. Democrats need to prepare for that eventuality – and they need to do it now.