The retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has paved the way for Mitt Romney to resume his political career, this time with the bipartisan acclaim that so often eluded him as governor of Massachusetts and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. And he is now a heavy favorite to win the prize that got away from him in 1994: a U.S. Senate seat.
Finally, people exclaim, we will have a #NeverTrump senator!
But Utah already has a distinguished conservative senator who was anti-Trump during the campaign. Unlike Romney, he played no role in elevating Trump prior to 2016. He was not associated with the Republican failures that made Trump appealing to so many blue-collar conservatives. And he is not tied to the Iraq and immigration policies of the last administration, about which Trump was closer to being right than was much of the Republican establishment.
That would be Mike Lee, who will, upon Hatch’s retirement become the senior senator from Utah.
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but Lee was among a handful of consequential lawmakers to hold firm to his anti-Trump convictions at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He also clashed with the RNC over the rules, defying his mild-mannered reputation as he demanded points of order and shouted "No!" on floor votes.
Even after the convention, Lee never endorsed Trump for president. He spelled out the reasons, rooted in policy and temperament, for why he was sitting this one out. He even took a harder line on Trump’s outlandish slurs against Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) father, Rafael Cruz, than Ted Cruz himself.
"We can get into the fact that he accused my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK," Lee told NewsMax TV.
After the Access Hollywood tape came out, in which Trump was heard bragging about groping women, Lee publicly called on Trump to step down as the Republican presidential nominee. "Your conduct, sir, is the distraction," he said. "It’s the distraction from the very principles that will help us win in November. You yourself, sir, Mr. Trump, have stated repeatedly that the goal, the objective, has got to be to defeat Hillary Clinton in November. I couldn’t agree more. Mr. Trump, I respectfully ask you, with all due respect to step aside."
Both Lee and Romney were among the Mormon conservatives who reacted negatively to Trump, who underperformed in Utah and continues to have anemic approval ratings there for a Republican president. Yet Lee has also been one of Washington’s preeminent constitutional conservatives, one who represented the best of the Tea Party back when it was still a constructive force within the Republican Party, before it was overrun by grifters. He has worked with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to safeguard civil liberties against bipartisan threats and teamed up with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to push family-friendly tax reforms.
Lee sought to chart a path forward for social conservatives on same-sex marriage and religious liberty. He has tried to learn from the foreign-policy mistakes of the George W. Bush years. And he has been a champion of the "libertarian populism" that stands as an alternative to Trumpism.
The argument against Lee, however, is that he hasn’t always channeled the Resistance since Trump has been in the Oval Office. Lee yukked it up with Trump when he slashed two national monuments in Utah, a move local residents viewed as a federal land grab. He’s often voted with Trump, has at times defended the administration’s policies, and has been somewhat skeptical of the Russia probe.
Romney, who auditioned to become Trump’s secretary of state, would do nearly all these things, too. Utah voters want a senator who will vote for conservative bills, even if Trump is the president who ends up signing them into law. If Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovers clear evidence against Trump, Romney and Lee would be exactly the senators whose votes would be in play to hold the president into account.
Lee has sided with Trump when the president has supported Lee’s policy preferences, not the other way around. And Lee showed independence when he suggested Trump replace former FBI Director James Comey with Merrick Garland, the judge former President Obama unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court.
Utah is a red state where voters don’t mistake fealty to Trump for commitment to conservative principles. But not every Republican elected there provides an equally compelling alternative. On that, Lee trumps Romney.