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Mitt Romney: Future Force in the Senate or Just Another Freshman?

GOP senators expect Romney to enter the Senate with influence

Romney won the GOP primary on Tuesday for the Utah Senate race, and is favored to win the general election in November. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Romney won the GOP primary on Tuesday for the Utah Senate race, and is favored to win the general election in November. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It is not every day that voters have the chance to elect a freshman senator with an outsize national profile like that of Mitt Romney.

In fact, you might have to go back to the year 2000, when first lady Hillary Clinton was first running for Senate in New York.

Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential standard-bearer, did not mention President Donald Trump by name in his Tuesday evening primary victory speech in Utah, but the message was unmistakable.

“We also welcome immigrants and refugees who come here legally. They add to the vitality of our great country,” said Romney, who is expected to have little trouble winning election in November. “We prize education and rigorous debate, and we expect the people who are leaders to carry out these debates with civility and dignity.”

Romney, of course, still has to win the November election, where he will face Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson. She is expected to point out his ties outside of Utah as a former Massachusetts governor with family roots in Michigan.

But Republicans are confident that will not be enough to upset Romney in a heavily GOP state where he is popular.

Assuming all goes according to plan, the question is whether he could fill a leadership void or struggle adjusting to life as a freshman senator. 

Retiring Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin G. Hatch noted that Romney’s ability to step into the power vacuum he is leaving behind is why Hatch encouraged Romney to run.

“He’ll be a freshman senator. He’ll have to earn his influence,” Hatch said Tuesday. “But he’ll have automatically some influence because he’s a top flight guy who’s been a major governor, a major candidate for president. So he has to be given a lot of consideration.”

Romney has also been cultivating a strong relationship with Republican Mike Lee through regular telephone conversations, according to a spokesman for Lee, who will become the Beehive State’s senior senator.

Senators and observers don’t expect Romney to keep a low profile if he wins in November, even though he will also have to spend hours presiding over the generally empty chamber, just like any other freshman, if Republicans maintain the Senate majority.

But it’s unclear just how much sway he could have as a first-term lawmaker, and how exactly he’ll use that bully pulpit — especially when it comes to the president.

New ‘power center’?

In March, retiring Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flakemade the bold prediction that Romney would “create a whole new power center in the Senate.”

“Just given his background and his prominence and gravitas, it’s a little different coming in an as a freshman for him,” Flake said on Tuesday. “So he’ll have more sway than a typical freshman senator.”

Other Republicans also expected Romney to enter the Senate with significant influence if he is elected, given his previous role as the party’s presidential standard bearer.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who held senior positions in the George W. Bush administration as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget, is among the Republican senators who have reached out to Romney recently, including sending well-wishes ahead of the primary on Tuesday morning.

“I think he’ll be a great member. I’m eager to have him here. Not only he’s got a high profile, like you say, but he’s also got a lot of experience,” Portman said. “He’s been a successful governor, a successful CEO, and I think he’ll add a lot.”

Senators and others predicted that Romney would be particularly vocal on foreign policy and fiscal issues. Politico reported that Romney has expressed interest in joining the Foreign Relations committee, which is losing two Republicans since Flake and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker are retiring.

“I love Orrin,” Corker said. “But if Orrin is going to retire, I’m glad that Romney’s coming.”

Corker also told reporters that Romney had not specifically expressed interest in the committee in the handful of times they have spoken during the Senate race. Flake also said he has spoken with Romney, though he declined to discuss details when ducking into a meeting in the Foreign Relations Committee room.

Both Flake and Corker also leave a void of vocal Trump critics, which Romney could fill — but not all the time.

“He’s not going to be a daily critic of the president as some are,” said former Romney aide Ryan Williams.“He would much rather work with the president than have to criticize him.”

Romney said as much in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

“I have and will continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions,” Romney wrote. “I do not make this a daily commentary; I express contrary views only when I believe it is a matter of substantial significance.”

Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News in Utah, put it this way, “I think the people out there who are hoping for a Mitt Romney/Donald Trump cage match from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue I think are going to be strongly disappointed.”

Matheson, a former chief of staff to Lee, said Romney has a unique understanding of Trump as a transactional businessman, who is focused on the deal in front of him rather than longstanding relationships.

It’s why, for example, Romney might have even entertained becoming Trump’s Secretary of State after having said in a March 2016 speech at the University of Utah that the then-candidate, “has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” 

Freshman blues?

If Romney wins in November, he would still be a first-term senator, learning the language of Senate procedure and part of a rotating cast of presiding officers of the chamber.

One key question is how Romney will work with Lee. In addition to their regular communication throughout the primary campaign, Lee said in a statement that he spoke with Romney Tuesday night after Romney easily secured the GOP nomination.

“I look forward to working with him in the Senate,” Lee said.

Matheson described the combination of Lee and Romney as a “one-two punch” for a state that “has always taken pride in punching above its weight” in Congress. Lee is a generally reserved policy wonk, while Romney could use his political savvy and influence in the party.

Matheson, who considered running for Senate but decided against it, said he sat down with Romney late last year to discuss the chamber. 

“I was joking with him that when I was chief of staff the most miserable people in the Senate were the former governors and the former business executives,” Matheson. “I said you’ve got two strikes against you going in.”

While former governors used to executive action often bemoan congressional gridlock, some senators and observers said Romney could work across the aisle, tapping into bipartisan skills honed as governor of a Democratic-friendly Massachusetts.  

But Portman said that, perhaps unlike some other former governors who have become members of the Senate, Romney knows the frustrations he is signing up for.

“I think he knows what he’s getting himself into,” Portman said.

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