Who will Mitt Romney endorse in the U.S. Senate race in Utah? Maybe no one

As the U.S. Senate race in Utah heats up for one of the state’s two Republican senators, the other one is staying out of the fire.

Sen. Mitt Romney, who is not up for reelection, has so far not endorsed Sen. Mike Lee or any of the candidates challenging the two-term incumbent, and might not publicly back any of them.

Romney said no one in the race has approached him for his endorsement.

“I don’t think endorsements make any difference in a race to speak of. People in the race are my friends. I usually try and avoid situations where they’ve been friends. I may endorse and I may not, but I really haven’t given it any thought at this point,” he told Utah reporters in response to a question during a video press call Wednesday.

Romney said he’s not sure anyone is anxious for his support, adding, “I’m not sure my endorsement is a plus or a minus, so maybe that’s why no one is asking.”

In general, senators are more likely to endorse co-partisans, and the choice not to endorse a co-partisan reflects a lack of enthusiasm for the candidate or, alternatively, feeling torn between several plausible candidates in the case of an open seat, said Chris Karopwitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

“In this case, Romney’s choice not to endorse an incumbent Republican likely reflects the fact that he and Mike Lee have different bases of support among voters and different visions for the future of the Republican Party,” he said.

Karpowitz said Lee and Romney made very different choices about how to respond to the Trump administration, for example, and seem to have different policy priorities as well.

“This is one more piece of evidence that Utah’s senators see the political world and the demands of representing the state quite differently, even though they share a partisan label and geographic constituency,” he said.

Lee faces several GOP challengers, including former state legislator Becky Edwards, community and business leader Ally Isom, and independent Evan McMullin. Democrat Kael Weston is also in the race. The candidate filing deadline in Utah is Friday.

Edwards and Isom have positioned themselves as mainstream Republicans. Both say Utahns are dissatisfied with Lee and want new leadership in the Senate.

Isom has called for Lee to drop out of the race and “honor his commitment” to serve only two terms. Lee has advocated for term limits since he was elected in 2010, but has refused to put limits on his own service until Congress enacts such limits across the board.

Former Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert weighed in on Lee running for third term in a recent story in Politico about the Utah senate race.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of people in elected office, it’s circumstantial ethics,” Herbert said. “That’s a legitimate criticism of Lee. Men shouldn’t be commanded in all things. You should do things that are right and proper, regardless of if it’s a rule or not.”

Herbert — who has a close relationship with all three GOP candidates, including Isom, his former deputy chief of staff — has yet to make an endorsement.

McMullin unveiled a hard-hitting television ad this week attacking Lee for voting against a bipartisan measure to impose sanctions on Russia for cyberattacks and meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The ad comes as Russia continues its military assault in Ukraine.

“As the world rallies around Ukraine, Mike Lee was one of only two senators to oppose sanctions on Putin. Then, he flew to the Kremlin and discussed dropping sanctions. Lee even opposed arming Ukrainians fighting for their lives,” McMullin says in the ad.

“Sen. Lee abandoned our values, making us weak and unsafe.”

Lee has not responded to McMullin’s accusations. But Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser in the Trump administration, recently came to his defense on Twitter after McMcullin referred to Lee as “Moscow Mike” in a tweet and attributed the war deaths in Ukraine to Lee’s trip to Russia.

“This Tweet is both absurd & uncivil. When I served as US National Security Advisor, no one was tougher on Moscow or Beijing than our team. When I needed backup in the US Senate, my first call was almost always to @SenMikeLee. Mike delivered for the USA,” O’Brien wrote.

Regarding the 2017 sanctions on Russia, Lee said at the time that an amendment to the bill included programs and policies that are not effective at addressing problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship and have promoted progressive policies unrelated to countering Russia at the expense of American taxpayers.

McMullin, a former Republican who ran for president as an independent in 2016, also criticized Lee for a trip he made to Moscow in 2019 where loosening sanctions were discussed with a Russian foreign affairs leader. Lee, who was hosted in Russia by then-U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., said after the trip that the Russian official complained to him about the sanctions and he pushed back on the election interference.

McMullin’s ad, which is running on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and KSL, gained a lot of traction on social media Wednesday, including retweets by former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and Alexander Vindman, the now-retired Army colonel who testified in Congress about former President Donald Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy.

Lee plans to unveil his own TV ads ahead of next Tuesday’s neighborhood caucus meetings in Utah where delegates are elected to vet candidates before state political party nominating conventions in April. But the spots won’t seek to counter McMullin’s ad.

“Sen. Lee’s campaign had already previously planned to ad buys for the caucus and convention portion of the campaign,” said Matt Lusty, a Lee campaign spokesman.

On Friday, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and GOP Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, are scheduled to attend a fundraising lunch with Lee put on by the Utah Federation of Republican Women. Lee also will host Noem and Paul in a discussion for prospective state GOP delegates Friday night at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.






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