The midterm election is shaping up as a referendum on Trump’s first two years in office — a dynamic that could endanger GOP control of the Senate, given that the president’s approval rating has hovered around 35 percent.
Some Senate Republicans worry that Trump is coloring the GOP brand in a way that could hurt their party’s future prospects, even though they largely support his agenda and are thrilled about his role in helping to pass a major tax bill.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the most outspoken of Trump’s critics in the Senate GOP conference, said Romney would “offer a different vision, a more traditional Republican vision” if he came to the Senate.
He’s one of several Republican senators who has spoken to Romney personally and urged him to run.
Romney, if elected, “will be an independent voice in the caucus,” Flake said.
During Trump’s presidency, the “independent voice” in the GOP has mainly been Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a war hero who beat Romney for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
But McCain is battling brain cancer and has been less outspoken in recent weeks.
Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), two of the Trump’s other prominent Senate Republican critics, will retire at the end of this year.
John Weaver, a GOP strategist who is a vocal critic of Trump, said Romney “has both the stature and the strength and the courage to stand up to this president and speak truth to power, which is severely lacking in the Senate, absent John McCain.”
Another Senate Republican strategist who requested anonymity to comment on the president candidly, said, “we need respected voices who actually care about things like fidelity and decency and family and live their life according to their values,” referring to Romney.
“We’re a little short on that at the moment,” the strategist added.
GOP senators who have chatted with Romney are confident he’s going to announce a campaign to succeed Hatch in the next several weeks.
“If I were a betting man, I’d bet my house on it,” said Flake, who like Romney, is Mormon and doesn’t gamble.
Another Republican senator who has privately urged Romney to run for the Utah seat agreed that he would have a leading role in the caucus.
“He doesn’t take orders from anybody,” said the GOP source. “He comes with some real credibility.”
That lawmaker, too, believes Romney will announce his candidacy before the spring.
The deadline for candidates to file for the Utah Senate race is March 15.
Romney emerged as one of Trump’s most forceful Republican critics during the 2016 presidential campaign.
He warned in a heavily covered speech during the primary that, “if we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”
He also charged that Trump lacked the “temperament to be president’ and questioned his business acumen.
Romney’s relationship with Trump grew strained after that, even though Trump considered him for secretary of State after winning the White House.
Trump reportedly sought to prevent Romney from coming to Washington, waging a campaign to convince Hatch to run for another term.
Hatch seemed to waver, but ultimately decided to retire, clearing the way for Romney.
A third Republican senator who has spoken to Romney said he, too, would put money on Romney getting into the Senate race.
Even though the lawmaker predicted that Romney might find the arcane procedures and slow pace of the Senate somewhat stifling, he said it would give the former Republican nominee for president a high-profile platform.
“He’d have opportunities to be a national spokesman. I don’t know if it would be on the economy because of his background in business or on national security,” the lawmaker added.
A Senate seat could also give Romney a perch from which to launch another presidential bid, should Trump for some unforeseen reason decide not to run for a second term, added the GOP lawmaker.
Yet given the growing strength of the economy, Trump is looking stronger politically than earlier this year, even though his approval rating is still mired in the 30s.
Romney could help Senate Republicans in others ways.
A senior Senate Republican aide observed that Romney “would raise a ton of money for the NRSC,” referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said Romney would be a great addition to the chamber but hasn’t reached out to him recently.
“I think he’d be a great senator. Ultimately it comes down to the people of Utah, what they want to do,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed in April that he had talked to Romney about running for Hatch’s seat if the senior Utah senator decided to retire,
The Republicans who had spoken to Romney, 70, only expect him to serve for one term in the Senate, which would free him up to be outspoken on a range of issues.
One Republican senator who spoke to Romney said he would be motivated by “our glamorous lifestyle,” speaking ironically about the chamber’s weekly grind.
Romney, at the end of a long and successful career in politics and business, would have to put up with a variety of indignities, such as an office stuck in the basement of the Russell office building or waiting to be one of the last people allowed to speak at committee hearings.
He’d likely have to wait a few years to get a chance at serving on the most powerful and prestigious committees, the Finance and Appropriations panels.
But Romney’s stature would give him a megaphone rarely available to Senate freshmen.
He could quickly become a leading elder statesman despite being consigned to the back row of the Senate chamber.
Republican senators have sung Romney’s praises since Hatch announced his retirement.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) called him a “good man” who makes a strong contribution.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called Romney a “friend” and said, “I’d be pleased to see him run.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said “I hope to see him in the Senate.”
“I have a lot of respect for Gov. Romney,” he added. “He’s a very intelligent individual, someone who has put in a full life outside of politics but also was involved in politics at the highest level.”
GOP senators embraced Romney much more enthusiastically when he ran for president in 2012 than they did Trump in 2016.
“I think he’s a very good person,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I had a lot to do with him during 2012” when he introduced Romney at Iowa campaign events.