President Trump wasn’t the only Republican who stared down the “rigged” electoral system in America. According to a recent report from The Atlantic, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney almost fell victim to party “infighting” and political gerrymandering in the lead up to his Senate campaign in Utah — spared only by last-minute amendments to the state’s bylaws that, if enforced, would have made his 2018 chances dead on arrival.
Towards the end of December last year, Utah’s current Senator Orrin Hatch announced he would not be running for reelection during the mid-terms — a move paving the wave for Romney’s return to government long awaited by establishment conservatives. This bunch, most notably, commended the former Massachusetts governor for being an outspoken member of the now dissolved “NeverTrump movement” — finding few trusted allies in the likes of “low-energy Jeb Bush,” who secured only 3% of the vote during the 2016 Republican primary, and neocon commentator Bill Kristol. This movement was the unpopular position among the larger Republican base of hardline conservatives and nationalists that still adore the president.
Romney’s return during the Trump era only further escalates the clash of factions within the Republican party. This is further complicated by how voters and politicians will respond to the staunch NeverTrump past of Romney — which he has since abandoned. It was not long ago that Romney was served the equivalent of a cabinet cock-block by Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, strongly advising the president on and off TV to reject him for the position of Secretary of State. Romney is still written about with disdain in the Robert Mercer-funded outlet Breitbart, the billionaire being Trump’s top donor who had a vested interest in the TV star’s accession to political power.
Romney even went as far as to put his political career on the line, saying should he run again he would “never” accept the man’s endorsement — with Trump firing back that Mitt Romney was “begging” for such a back-handed honor:
This drama, of course, would be newly branded as “fake news” by Trump and Romney both — the president having endorsed Romney over Twitter and the man accepting it like their unpleasant exchanges had never happened.
Thank you Mr. President for the support. I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 20, 2018
Last Saturday morning in Salt Lake City, Utah, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, a hardline bunch of pro-Trump activists from the Central Committee, who haven’t forgiven Romney, lobbied to enforce the state election bylaws which would have forced candidates to go exclusively through the caucus and convention process to be on the ballot. They also proposed anyone opting for the signature-gathering path to be “immediately” revoked of their membership to the party. This, in effect, would have made Romney’s campaign for the nomination obsolete given they were taking both paths to secure the seat and would not risk running as an independent.
Understandably, this story was picked up by the standard right-wing rags of Breitbart, Fox News, as well as other publications always keen to walk in lock-step with the Republican-seized victim-complex narrative of elections being fixed against the right — corrections be damned in their coverage!
Few media outlets, other than The Atlantic and UtahPolicy, updated audiences on the actions of Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, who notably opposed the anti-Romney measure and was able to secure 50 other candidate’s chances in the state elections, including Romney’s.
One Utah Republican official, speaking to The Atlantic under the conditions of anonymity, said that the activists scaled back the original provisions, including forcing candidates to go through an ideological “purity test,” because they realized how intense the backlash was.
“They realized they would get destroyed,” the anonymous official told The Atlantic.
They were seemingly scared of Anderson, in particular, who swore to not restrict ballot access or membership status for any particular candidate through unlawful and “unconstitutional” means:
“I think that violates both state law (SB54) and the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection rights,” Anderson said.
“If our bylaws violate the Constitution or state law, then I’m bound to uphold the Constitution or the state law. It is my responsibility to ensure that no candidate gets removed. I’m holding the line.”
Under SB54, Utah’s citizens are granted the right to participate in taxpayer-funded primary elections via signature gathering. This option is guaranteed within the state law, allowing a direct democracy approach to ballot access rather than going through the top-down structure of the Republican party— which would have been violated by the original bylaw enforcement.
Alternatively, eliminating this would have forced candidates to appeal to a new right-wing base that is rapidly turning up for caucuses and conventions, such as the Tea party voters or MAGA-hat wearers, leaving the nominal normie voter out of the political process. The Atlantic highlighted the case of Mike Lee, the prominent Tea party candidate who beat veteran U.S. Senator Bob Bennett at the 2010 Utah convention.
Anderson also cited constitutional concerns regarding the committee’s decision, explaining they may have violated the Equal Protection Clause outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment. Even as the provisions were scaled back, Anderson saw legal questions in their establishment of one set of rules in the U.S. House districts 1st and 2nd, while establishing another in the House districts 3rd and 4th.
Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who is the responsible watchdog over the state’s elections, told The Atlantic that legal teams are currently investigating the party’s new bylaws and “deciding how to move forward” should they be in violation of the state laws or the constitution. This may even affect the establishment of a Utah based Republican party that is considered legally qualified to run — leaving the door open for their worst-case scenario of a potential third party option emerging from the right or more capital gained by the Democratic party candidates who live in the red state.
Romney didn’t seem phased with the whole drama, telling Fox 13:
“I’m not terribly concerned about that. I’m going to let others deal with the politics within the party and the process for achieving nomination within the party.
I’m instead going to focus on my race, and I’m doing two things: I’m collecting signatures, and I’m going to cross the state to get the support I would need to be successful in the caucus and the convention.”
Romney’s allies, also speaking under terms of anonymity, are confident in their candidate’s chances regardless of who gets the Republican nomination. RealClearPolitics currently has Romney up 46% over Democratic challenger Jenny Wilson, which is a surprise to literally no one. This leaves the battle squarely on who can be the more popular right-winger — and it seems nothing can stop Romney’s accession to power. FiveThirtyEight polls show the former governor would pull in over 18% of Democrats and 60% of voters overall should he be in the running, regardless of whether the (R) label is absent come voting time.
“Mitt Romney’s popularity in Utah transcends party politics,” Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, told The Atlantic last week. “Recent polls show that he wins with Republicans, unaffiliated voters, and even pulls in about one-third of Democratic voters. If Romney … is not able to run as a Republican, the issue will not be whether voters are willing to vote for him, it will be how they view the Utah Republican Party.”