This could be the Year of the Feud.
With Orrin Hatch poised to end his 40 years in the Senate, Mitt Romney may not only be Utah’s main choice to fill the seat, but also a salvation for the Republican Party mainstream as it was before Donald Trump. The former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP nominee for the presidency could become a force in the next run for the White House.
There is no love lost between Trump and Romney, and apparently now between Trump and his former chief political mastermind Steve Bannon, who was quoted in a new book as highly critical of the reality TV/real estate tycoon/hotelier’s family. Romney has also been highly critical of Trump, calling him unfit for the office during the campaign. Trump was equally disparaging, charging that Romney is a loser who blew his own presidential race by choking.
Trump responded in the harshest of terms to quotes attributed to Bannon in a book by columnist Michael Wolff, making it clear he has no use for Bannon and disavowing his importance to Trump’s presidential victory. Wolff has a somewhat spotty reputation for accuracy, according to the Washington Post. One must also wonder why a politician as savvy as Bannon would make such incendiary remarks about the ally he needs most. Trump is threatening to sue and onetime Bannon supporters are in full flight from him.
Whether Romney would want to launch himself from the Senate into a primary fight with Trump would probably depend on his ability to keep from appearing petulant in disagreement with Trump’s agenda — backing Trump when it was expedient but not doing so when he could make a good case against doing so. Unseating your own party’s sitting president is a delicate and difficult process, even when your target is not terribly popular — as Sen. Edward Kennedy found out in his effort to oust Jimmy Carter from the White House, a factor in Carter’s ultimate defeat by Ronald Reagan in the general election.
But Trump is an entirely different chief executive, violating plenty of political tenets and supported by a base that may be dwindling but is still effective, forcing the traditional Republican leadership to constantly look over its shoulders.
Red state Utah’s dislike of Trump could be seen as a factor in Hatch’s decision to retire at the end of the year. After lending major support to win passage of Trump’s controversial tax bill and issuing an over-the-top endorsement of the president, one survey showed 75 percent of the state’s voters opposed Hatch running again despite Trump’s pleas for him to stay in office.
All of this probably will make Trump’s second year in office more difficult than the first in his efforts to adopt an enormous domestic agenda, in his promises for strong foreign policy leadership and, of course, in keeping his congressional majority. The party in the White House usually loses seats in the legislature at midterm, and Trump’s situation could become catastrophic with the Senate highly probable to return to the Democrats.
Such an eventuality would leave him fuming on his morning tweets. Also, his personal campaigning might be limited by Republican candidates who see him as a liability with low approval ratings. Much of his campaigning would have to be in the South, where the GOP has near one-party status once held by the Democrats, or in a few parts of the rust belt carried during the election.
Romney’s role in all this could be crucial. His image as a moderate conservative leader and a one-time presidential nominee who still could be viable gives him an air of authority Republicans currently don’t have. His more moderate, traditional views and exposure sets him apart from the hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Also, Romney has unique cachet in Utah as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics after a major scandal had threatened them for the state. And this time around his devotion to Mormonism is not expected to be the detriment it once seemed to be when he was the first of his religion to win the nomination. His influence on the party could be considerable, whether challenging Trump or not.
Trump’s peril in the Year of the Feud is considerable, and it’s just beginning.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.