WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake hopes Utah’s Mitt Romney can succeed him as a bulwark against divisiveness and rancor in the Republican Party.
Flake told the Deseret News on Tuesday that his position as a moral opponent of President Donald Trump made a 2018 re-election “impossible.” But Romney would bring “immediate gravitas” to the Senate, he said, if he chooses to run.
Two of Romney’s closest friends told the Deseret News earlier this week that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee is seriously considering a run for the seat currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Hatch, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is at the center of the party’s effort to pass major tax reform by the end of the year and has not announced whether he will pursue an eighth term.
While Hatch has touted a close relationship to Trump, Romney has been among the president’s most prominent Republican critics. In March 2016, he labeled Trump “a phony” in a speech at the University of Utah.
Many of those Republican critics — like Romney and Flake — happen to be Mormon, though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long-standing policy to remain neutral in politics.
Sixty-one percent of Mormons voted for Trump, according to 2016 exit poll data from the Pew Research Center, but that was down from 78 percent who voted for Romney in 2012 and 80 percent who helped elect Republican George W. Bush to a second term.
Other prominent Mormon political figures who’ve spoken out against Trump’s behavior and statements include independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin and Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee voted for McMullin, while Utah Rep. Mia Love wrote in the name of Vice President Mike Pence. Newly elected Utah Rep. John Curtis didn’t vote for Trump, either, though campaign opponents accused him of aligning himself with Trump's position on a border wall and "draining the swamp."
Flake, who has a house in Provo in the same LDS ward as Curtis, spoke to the Deseret News on Tuesday evening at his warmly lit Senate office.
At ease among family photos, he made light of six fresh stitches above his left eye that he received after an ill-timed lawn care mishap. As a result, he had to pose in profile for a Time magazine portrait.
The 54-year-old — until recently perhaps best known for his resistance to earmarks during six terms in the House — announced last month on the Senate floor that he wouldn’t seek re-election against the Steve Bannon-backed Kelli Ward.
He wrote a book, "Conscience of a Conservative,” about the rise of what he perceives as reality-show populism and a reduced focus on conservative principles, and he was among those at a Republican congressional baseball practice in June when a shooter opened fire, diving into the dugout and then running out to attend to wounded Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: It’s curious that many of the Republican leaders at the forefront of the opposition to some of the politics espoused by Trump are LDS, and I wondered why do you think that is.
Jeff Flake: I’m proud that that’s the case, frankly. In this case, I’m proud that it’s a bunch of Mormons standing up. We’re taught to be decent and hopefully principled, and so I hope that our religion shows in that way.
DN: But everybody is taught to be decent, aren’t they?
JF: I think Mormons typically are more optimistic, and that’s such a contrast to kind of the dystopian view that a lot of people have, and that the president and others portray in terms of the direction of the country. I think Mormons typically have a different view, a more optimistic, sunny view. I think that’s a good thing.
I talked about it a lot in the book, I grew up with as close to a family or creed or motto as we had — it started as a 3 by 5 card with brownie and cookie stains on it on our fridge that said, “Assume the best. Look for the good.” That was my mother, more than anybody. That was her saying. And that was something that she and my father reminded us of frequently. That was always on our fridge, and it’s made it into almost all of our houses in stenciled wood or on our own fridge, just as a reminder.
I think that that should apply, can apply, to politics, where part of the problem with politics today is people assume the worst motives from their political opponents, so that they ascribe poor motives to them before they even know what they’re about. It’s tough to reach agreement and compromise when that happens.
DN: Did you like (Former President George W. Bush’s) comment that we judge other people by their worst examples and we judge ourselves by our best intentions?
JF: Right. Yeah. And think that that’s — (Mormons) certainly read it in scripture, and not that other religions don’t, but it’s really drilled into us (by) not just scripture but in lessons that we teach or participate in. So, I try to live it.
DN: Have you spoken to other Mormon lawmakers about this kind of moment where you’re all at the forefront together here?
JF: I speak to them. Not necessarily about this moment or where we all are in it, but I don’t think we’re surprised that some of us have been at the forefront of it. Certainly, with Mitt, he’s the most prominent Mormon out there, and he’s not been shy about speaking up, and I’m glad. It gives the rest of us motivation and cover to do the same.
DN: Are you lonely out on this limb? Are you wondering, “Where is everybody?” “What is it going to take?”
DN: Let me reframe that: Other lawmakers must have spoken to you privately about what they think about some of the stances that you’ve taken.
JF: Oh yeah.
DN: Is their tune different in private?
JF: You bet.
DN: Are people saying to you in private, “You’re saying exactly what I wish I could say, but I can’t say it”?
JF: Yes, definitely. After the speech on the Senate floor, obviously, I had a lot of that. Privately, I haven’t been shy about speaking out this whole year. Yeah, a lot of people say that, and some are up for re-election soon, and that kind of limits what they can say, if they’re serious about re-election. And others are reluctant to make waves, I guess.
DN: Do they say, “I’ve got to work with this administration. I’ve got to get something done with this administration”?
DN: And when you hear them say that what do you tell them?
JF: Well, I’ve worked with this administration as well on regulations and judges, immigration, tax policy. Being in disagreement shouldn’t prevent you from working with the administration.
We’re here for a reason, in terms of, if you’re just here to mark time, it’s not worth it. This is a great job. It’s an honor to represent Arizona here. But there are a lot of sacrifices, particularly when you have a family, and you have to commute back and forth. And if you’re here accomplishing something, it’s worth it. If you’re not, if you’re just here to mark time and to be re-elected, it’s not worth it.
And so the notion of just going along to get along — especially when you have a president making statements, exhibiting behavior that is really outside of the norm, that shouldn’t be accepted. You don’t want to define deviancy downward anymore. The popular culture does that enough without having elected officials participate. And that’s what’s so, I guess, disheartening. There’s enough out there that’s bad and degrading, without people that we all should look up to participating or leading that charge.
DN: Are you concerned that there will not be somebody to kind of pick up this baton from you, that there won’t be somebody, any acting members of Congress, who are willing to do what you’ve done?
JF: Well, I hope Mitt Romney’s running. (Laughs) I do hope it. But there are some who are standing up. (Republican Nebraska Sen.) Ben Sasse has certainly spoken up. I hope he continues to (speak up). I hope others will as we go on. Maybe some are still waiting for the pivot to happen, for the president to change behavior, some of the policies. But I think by now the die’s pretty much cast. It’s tough.
And so maybe someone will come forward and say, “We ought to speak up.” We can’t let this go unchallenged when the president applies a religious test, like a Muslim ban, or makes statements about the media, and shutting them down, or encouraging the FBI or other agencies to investigate his political opponents. I hope that other people stand up.
DN: Have you spoken to Mitt at all about this?
JF: Yeah, I’ve spoken to him along the way. He came out and did a fundraiser for me in Arizona, or a couple of fundraisers in June, and we’ve spoken by text and email a few times, as well. And I admire him, I always have.
DN: Specifically, have you said, “Mitt, I need you, we need you here”?
JF: (Laughs) Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve encouraged him to run. I have. I’ve said that he can make a tremendous impact in the Senate. He could come in with immediate gravitas. People respect him. His political skills and knowledge and experience are certainly well-known, and he could make a tremendous difference.
DN: Your critics would say — have said — that by not running for re-election …
DN: You’ve sort of …
JF: Given up the fight?
DN: (Or) you’re a hypocrite, in a way. How do you respond to that?
JF: Given where the Republican party is right now, the Republican primary electorate, those who vote in a Republican primary, about 90 percent of them are right with the president — both his policies and condoning his behavior. And the No. 1 issue seems to be not immigration or taxes or the economy, or regulation. It’s “Are you with the president?” And that’s a tough thing for a guy like me. That’s a tough environment to run in — in fact, an impossible environment to run in.
I had to make the choice. If I were running to win — and keep in mind, you’re never running alone; you have to have supporters, volunteers, donors, people who are with you as part of that campaign, and you can’t go to them and say, “We’re not running to win, we’re just out to make a statement.” Unless I were willing to condone the president’s behavior, to accept some of his policies, I couldn’t run to win, because I’m out of step with the Republican base right now.
To subject myself and my family to what would be a horrendous campaign, and to spend every spare moment in the next year raising money or campaigning, both here in Washington on the fundraising side and in Arizona on the weekends, that just wasn’t a good prospect.
Or, the flip side: to be able to be unencumbered by politics for a good 14 months, in a very pivotal time, when somebody needs to be standing up, saying, “This is not right. This is not normal.” And to use the Senate platform of being in the Senate for more than a year to make that case, I think I can do more good than running in a primary where I would have to run a campaign I couldn’t be proud of, that’s for sure.
DN: I know you’re an optimist and you have your motto, but that’s kind of a dark future, isn’t it? If you feel like you can’t be yourself and possibly win, where are we headed here? What turns the train around?
JF: I do think the fever will break at some point. I don’t think it will break by August of next year, when our primary would have been, but I do think it will break.
People, at some point, will value actually electing somebody who governs, who recognizes what polices you have to adapt or positions you have to take, that you have to reach across the aisle and Democrats are not your enemies, they’re just on the other side politically. They’re not evil. I think that we’ll come to that realization, the party will. But they’re not there right now. And I think they’ll come to recognize that anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing now. People will realize that. I hope it’s sooner rather than later.