By SAM METZ, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mitt Romney is not up for re-election this year. But Trump-leaning Republicans hostile to the Utah senator have made his name a recurring theme in this year’s primary, using him as a foil and mockingly branding their rivals “Mitt Romney Republicans.”
Republicans have used the concept to portray their main opponents as enemies of the Trump-era GOP in southeastern Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Anti-tax group Club For Growth, one of the most active super-PACs in this year’s primary, used “Mitt Romney Republican” as the central premise of an attack ad in the North Carolina Senate primary.
But nowhere are references to Romney republicanism more prevalent than in Utah. Despite its popularity with many residents here, candidates are repeatedly using “Mitt Romney Republican” as a campaign attack in the run-up to Tuesday’s Republican primary.
“There are two different wings in the Republican Party,” Chris Herrod, a former state legislator running in the 3rd congressional district of suburban Utah, said in a debate last month.
“If you’re more into Mitt Romney and Spencer Cox,” he added, referring to the Utah governor, “then I’m probably not your type.”
The fact that his brand has become potent fodder for attack reflects how unique Romney’s position in US politics is: he is the only senator with national notoriety stemming from being a presidential candidate, and the only one Republican who voted twice to impeach former President Donald Trump.
“It’s actually a mystery,” said Becky Edwards, an anti-Trump Republican running in the Utah Senate primary.
As one of the most celebrated members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney is revered by many in Utah, where the church has a dominant political and cultural presence. He was praised for flipping the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics following a bribery scandal. After moving to Utah full-time more than a decade ago, he won the state’s Senate race in 2018. He did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Herrod, who went to Las Vegas to promote Romney in 2012, said in an interview that referring to Romney is an effective shortcut — a way of communicating his own belief system, as well as that of incumbent Republican Rep. John Curtis, to voters. Herrod has attacked Curtis for his positions on energy policy and for establishing the Congressional Conservative Climate Caucus.
“In the middle of a campaign, it’s difficult to draw a line. I just put it in a way that I thought people would understand,” Herrod said.
The Curtis campaign said the congressman is more focused on legislation and passing legislation than branding. “Congressman Curtis does not spend his time labeling himself or other Republicans,” campaign manager Adrielle Herring said in a statement.
Similar to Herrod, Andrew Badger, a candidate in northern Utah’s 1st congressional district, is framing his main campaign as a “tug of war” between two competing factions within the Republican Party. He describes one as the moderate, pro-compromise wing embodied by Romney, and the other as the conservative wing embodied by Utah Senator Mike Lee, a frequent FOX News guest who often got the only “no” vote of the Senate is.
Both Badger and Herrod concede that the attack on Romney may deter some voters, four years after he easily defeated a right-wing legislator in Utah’s Republican primary and a Democrat in the general election. But they question the durability of his support given how Republican politics has largely changed over the past six years.
“There’s a lot more frustration, and it just builds. I don’t think he would win a vote today, let alone a Republican primary,” Badger said.
Badger has focused his campaign on the simmering outrage arising from the 2020 election and anger over coronavirus mandates and the way race, gender and sexuality are taught in K-12 schools. He has sought to draw a direct line between Romney and his opponent, incumbent Rep. Blake Moore, by attacking Moore for being one of 35 House Republicans responsible for establishing an independent commission to investigate the rioting voted January 6th.
In a district where support for Trump remains strong, he has compared Moore’s vote to Romney’s two votes for impeachment.
“These guys like Mitt Romney and Blake Moore always flex to the left when there’s pressure on them,” Badger said. “We will not compromise for the sake of compromise.”
Moore did not vote for impeachment. After the Senate scuttled the commission, Moore, along with all but two House Republicans, voted against creating the special committee on January 6, which eventually convened.
In response to Moore being labeled a “Mitt Romney Republican,” Caroline Tucker, the congressman’s campaign spokeswoman, said he could best be described as a “big tent Republican” who doesn’t believe the process of making legislation is his job conservative principles required.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the “Mitt Romney Republican” label might appeal to some Republican primary voters, but given Romney’s popularity, it probably won’t work in Utah, he said.
“They’re appealing to a section of the Republican Party, but probably don’t have the numbers on that extreme right to be successful,” Perry said.
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