Mitt Romney had moved on.
No more campaign rallies in Iowa or New Hampshire. No more political handlers and consultants telling him what to say. No more tracking polls and election returns.
He was done.
Since losing the presidential election of 2012, Romney had settled into a life far removed from the Beltway. He’d swapped out suits and ties for shorts and flip-flops. Rather than penning policy papers, he’d co-written an advice book with his wife (which came out last month). He was spending his days puttering around New Hampshire on a John Deere tractor, his grandson on his lap, or strolling on the beach near their other home in La Jolla, California. He hit his seventh decade retired, tan and rested. If he had a title, it was most often Papa.
He wasn’t entirely out of politics. There was the annual retreat of power brokers and big money donors at Deer Valley resort, and if the president called, as he did in December 2016, he was up for a candlelit dinner of frog legs to discuss a Cabinet position. But he couldn’t see himself running again. That chapter of his life, he believed, was over.
Then in January 2017, then-Sen. Orrin Hatch called. Hatch was mulling another run. Could he count on Romney’s endorsement? Sure, Romney said. He agreed to give the senator a call the next time he was in Washington.
A couple of months later, Romney was in town for a Marriott International board meeting and followed through. He assumed Hatch wanted to ask him to host a fundraising event and he planned to politely say no.
Hatch had something else in mind. He was 83 years old, his eyesight was failing and he faced mounting pressure from within his state not to run for an eighth term. Hatch was done, too.
But Hatch worried that four decades of political capital and clout he’d built for Utah would evaporate if a rank freshman took his place. The best solution, the longest serving Republican senator ever decided, was Romney, a household name among mainstream conservatives around the country and someone with the gravitas and connections to make an immediate impact like few other junior senators could.
The Senate could give Romney a national platform. And the admiration he earned leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah made him eminently electable and a natural voice for the state, says one person involved in recruiting Hatch’s successor.
Hatch came to Romney’s hotel room at the downtown Marriott, but instead of asking for money, he handed Romney a three-page memo explaining why he should run for his seat. “I was frankly flabbergasted,” Romney says.
He also wasn’t convinced.
“I had moved on to the next phase of my life, and Sen. Hatch comes along and says, ‘Hey, why don't you come to the United States Senate?'” Romney recalls. “It's like, you know, I don't need that now.”
Romney and his wife, Ann, had moved to Holladay, Utah, an upscale, wooded suburb of Salt Lake City, to be near most of their 24 grandchildren. Two of their five sons are in the Salt Lake area and they live next door to one of them. The couple expected more grandchildren to pass through the state as they carried on a family tradition of attending Brigham Young University.
That was the plan for the Romneys, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in March. And yet they couldn’t let go of the idea Hatch had planted.
Romney kept the memo and spent the ensuing months bouncing Hatch’s proposal off close associates and family. “He has the mind of a consultant,” says Don Stirling, who worked with Romney during the Winter Olympics and on the presidential campaigns and witnessed his practice of immersing himself in data from everyone around him before making a decision.
“We talked often,” says Mike Leavitt, who as Utah governor encouraged Romney to turn around the scandal-tainted 2002 Olympics and was involved in Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “In essence, Mitt told me that he has a voice and he wanted it to be heard."
But the voice that resonated loudest was his wife's. Ann Romney has held a powerful sway over her husband since they started dating in high school.
Romney says he was 18 when he wanted to marry her instead of serving a mission for his church — something young men in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to do after high school. They didn't share the same faith at the time, but she made it clear it was a mission for Mitt or no marriage. “She said if you don't go on a mission you'll regret it the rest of your life, and she said, ‘I do not want to be between you and your regrets,’” Romney recalls.
She used similar logic to push him back into politics: “You have deep roots in the state,” she told her husband. “This is a time when you’re needed. You have deep roots in this state. Your family heritage is in this state. And when people are needed you gotta step up.”
For the rest of the year, neither Hatch nor Romney spoke publicly about their meeting nor their intentions, fueling stories sourced by friends and supporters that Romney was ready to run for Hatch’s seat but the senior senator was waffling as President Donald Trump encouraged him to seek re-election.
By the end of the year, Romney had decided he was in, but only if Hatch wasn’t. On Jan. 2, 2018, both men got their wish: Hatch announced he wouldn’t run again, assured of his successor. And Romney was back in the political hunt. He officially announced his candidacy a month later.
There was little doubt he would win Hatch’s seat. The question was what did he plan to do with it?
Sen. Mitt Romney
In the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, Romney’s temporary quarters are cramped, stuffed with boxes. It's a far cry from the quarters he would have occupied in 2013 had things gone differently.
It’s Jan. 3 and in a few hours he will put his hand on a Bible passed down from his father, the late George Romney, former governor of Michigan and one-time candidate for president, to be sworn in as Utah’s junior senator. Despite the enormity of the moment, Romney is looking calm and confident as he goes through back-to-back interviews with Utah news media.
Outside his office, there’s a gaggle of reporters from national outlets that have been waiting for hours. He feels obligated to give them a sound bite.
“You don’t have to say something to them,” his spokeswoman tells him.
“No, I’m happy to say something. Go get them ready and I’ll come out,” Romney responds.
They want answers to a blistering op-ed Romney penned in The Washington Post that was highly critical of Trump. For those asking why Romney wanted to get back in politics, the op-ed seemed to provide an answer, and its timing — just days before he would be sworn in — seemed pregnant with meaning, maybe a harbinger of what was to come.
The piece blamed Trump for America losing respect in the world and put the nation on notice that Romney wouldn’t hold back if compelled to voice his views, even if they went against his party and president.
If Romney had wanted to create some buzz, the op-ed had done the trick. On the day that the most young, liberal and diverse group of lawmakers ever officially helped Democrats take control of the House, a national spotlight was also on Romney.
But the blowback from Romney’s own party was swift and fierce.
“For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack (Trump) as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive,” wrote Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who is Romney’s niece.
Trump, who had endorsed Romney’s Senate campaign, took to Twitter. “Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake?” Trump tweeted, referring to outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose constant criticism of the president put him at odds with others in the party and eventually forced him to retire rather than face a difficult re-election. “I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”
Indeed, the fate of Flake and former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another prominent Trump critic who stepped down rather than run in 2018, were cautionary tales that underscored the reaction to Romney’s op-ed by GOP senators who dared speak publicly.
Others speculated the op-ed was a self-serving ploy to position Romney or someone else to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination in 2020.
Back in his office, Romney wraps up his interviews with Utah media and strides out the door into the middle of a throng of reporters.
Romney has answered the questions on the op-ed already — he was on CNN explaining himself the day before — and he sticks to his talking points, which sound oblivious to the political consequences of him testing the limits of his influence so early in his tenure.
“I think it's important as I step into the Senate in this new responsibility to lay out my priorities and my perspectives,” he says, his wife by his side. “I look forward to working with Republicans and with Democrats, working with the president and members of the House and the Senate.”
What he doesn’t say is that throughout his campaign, the question asked most by voters was how he would work with a president he had once called a “fraud” and a “phony” in an attempt to recruit another GOP nominee in the 2016 election. After the election Romney said he wrote in his wife’s name for president.
And even in a reliably red state like Utah, there was a hunger for someone who would stand up to the president, especially someone from the president's own party. According to an Associated Press poll in late 2018, calling out Trump would play well in Utah. The survey found most Utah voters — 64 percent — would like to see Romney confront the president. And a more recent pollfound if Romney ran again for president — which he says he's won't do — he would trounce Trump in Utah.
But the critiques of the op-ed went beyond Romney’s appeal to voters. Those who questioned the wisdom of the move spoke to a respected technocrat who needed to hone his political instincts. Critics delved into the dynamics of a Senate that had become radically partisan during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His GOP colleagues talked about struggling to work with an unpredictable and divisive president whom many of their voters supported.
“(Romney’s) got to learn from Kavanaugh,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Radio. “It’s really not about Trump, it’s about us. It’s about conservatism. They (Democrats) want to destroy the conservative movement, not just Trump.”
Romney has a record of grand political strokes coming back to haunt him. During his 2012 presidential campaign, he had to keep answering for an op-ed four years earlier in The New York Times headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” And his speech denouncing Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, coupled with his Washington Post op-ed, resurface in news reports about any interaction with Trump — and that will likely continue.
But a month later, when I ask if he’s reflected on the reaction to the op-ed, Romney doesn’t say if it was a misstep or a stroke of genius: “I don't spend a lot of time looking backwards. I've had a number of senators express appreciation for what I wrote, although there have been a couple who have been overly critical about what I wrote at the time. But we're friends and see each other and go to lunch and get along fine.”
Not long after, Graham would invite Romney to the White House for lunch with Trump, his first meeting with the president since he became a senator. For 90 minutes the trio talked about China, trade and security — issues on which Trump and Romney agree and disagree.
“(Trump) is open,” Romney says the day after the meeting. “He said, 'Look, give me a call anytime with praise or with criticism,' and it's like, fine, I'll take you up on that, Mr. President."
More than a month after Romney is sworn in, he sits in the passenger seat of his black 2002 Chevy Silverado pickup truck. His deputy chief of staff is at the wheel, driving her boss along a two-lane highway that cuts through a snow-draped desert landscape. They're en route to a town hall meeting in the central Utah town of Castle Dale, population 1,499.
He’s getting an up-close look at the territory that will soon become federal wilderness and recreation areas, an expected topic at the town hall.
As the discussion turns to how he’s settling into his new job, Romney acknowledges it’s an adjustment for a former governor and chief executive to be at the back of the assembly line in the slow process of legislating.
"Yeah, I'd like to make faster decisions. I wanted that job. That job is being president, but I didn't get that job," Romney says.
As a senator, Romney ranks 97th out of 100 — a data point he brings up at the town hall.
"I can tell you that I step into some big shoes and I don't fill them," he says, tempering expectations. "Orrin Hatch had been there a long time. In terms of seniority out of 100 senators, he was number one," among Republicans.
But, as Hatch predicted and many Senate insiders and observers believe, Romney can punch above his weight when he’s ready.
While seniority matters in the tradition-bound Senate, the rules technically allow any member to attempt to set the agenda, if they dare.
The idea of the majority leader having complete control stems from a culture of “voluntary deference (or sufferance) of rank-and-file senators,” writes James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and expert on the Senate whose blog Legislative Procedure explains the mysterious workings of Congress. “(Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) gets to decide what the Senate votes on, but only so long as his colleagues let him make that decision.”
And Wallner says that gives Romney a “potent inside-outside dynamic” of procedural rights given to every senator coupled with instant name recognition and the ability to command media attention.
“If he wields it well, and even not so well, it’s going to result in putting issues on the agenda and he can do a lot,” Wallner said.
But setting an agenda without any support for it is a hollow victory, Wallner adds, and learning how to win the support of your colleagues takes time and experience.
Another Senate observer put it this way: “There are two kinds of senators: noisemakers and dealmakers. Romney should lean toward dealmaking. It will extend his shelf life and he has the gravitas not to have to lean on noisemaking so much.”
In a Senate where Republicans hold a slim majority, the dealmaking requires building trust and relationships with Democrats — something Romney admits didn’t seem possible before he took office.
“I imagined that Republicans and Democrats would be at each other's throats and be kind of cold when we see each other in the hall,” he says. “Instead, people are quite friendly.”
Romney says on his first weekend in Washington he and his wife were walking home from church through the Eastern Market neighborhood near Capitol Hill and heard someone calling his name. He waved in the general direction to acknowledge the voice but kept walking and didn’t bother to see who it was.
“She yelled again and said, ‘I’m a colleague.’ I turned around and it was a senator from New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. She's running for president as a Democrat,” Romney says. “She came running up and she and her husband told us where we should shop for the best bread, where they had the best meat and they invited us to her house for dinner.”
She hadn’t announced her candidacy for president, yet, so the topic didn’t come up. But Romney says other Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination jokingly ask him for advice.
“I have told all of them to run,” he says. “Even if you can't win, it's a great experience.”
A more intentional act of bipartisanship is the office desk Romney uses. In a nod to his former home state and to the man he lost his first political campaign to in 1994, Romney inherited from Hatch the desk of the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democratic standard-bearer for decades.
"He and I worked together when I was governor (of Massachusetts) on a series of projects and I came to respect him though disagree with him often."
He's hoping that same dynamic can play out among his colleagues in the Senate, where partisanship doesn’t only exist between the two parties but within the parties as well on divisive issues like health care and immigration.
His votes to end the government shutdown, approve a public lands bill and reject Trump's emergency declaration show a willingness to work with Democrats in the Senate. On Wednesday, Romney joined Democrat Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sit with him on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in introducing a bill that would "help ensure the U.S. government and Congress are prepared to face the multiple challenges posed by China."
Another controversial issue is reigning in deficit spending — something Romney campaigned on and is at the top of a to-do list he keeps on a legal pad. As of mid-March, he had jotted down 58 items and many of those could generate sublists, he says.
He's met privately with 37 senators toward his goal of meeting with them all to learn their priorities. But tackling deficit spending is not on anyone else’s to-do list from either party, he says, which will make it difficult for him to get it on the Senate’s agenda any time soon.
He takes heart, however, in the Natural Resources Management Act, which passed both houses in February by wide margins, as a model of what can get done with patient compromise. The massive bill took more than 20 years to finalize and includes something for nearly every state, including Utah.
But that hopeful story about Congress getting along to get things done isn’t going over well at the town hall in Castle Dale, where a somewhat hostile crowd of Emery County residents tells him they got the shaft in the lands bill. Their anger reflects a deep-seated disdain for federal land management that is common among rural Utahns.
“Where in the Constitution does it say that the federal government can own any of our land? Our resources are our natural right by birth,” declares a woman wearing a black T-shirt inscribed with white letters, "When tyranny becomes the law rebellion becomes duty."
Sen. Mitt Romney walks near Eagle Canyon in the San Rafael Swell as he tours federal lands in Emery County on Feb 23, 2019. The area has been designated as wilderness and for a new national monument under the Natural Resources Management Act.
Romney, wearing a casual button-down shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, tries to explain that they actually don’t have a birthright to land the government has owned since statehood. But as the discussion devolves into the senator and his constituents talking over and past each other, Romney changes tactics.
“By the way, you don't think I came up with this, do you?” he asks.
“You supported it,” a man wearing a camo hoodie hollers back.
“This is the people who represented your county coming up with this bill, so I don't know why I'm up here defending it and they're not,” he says with a laugh that masks some annoyance. “So the guys who are behind this get up and talk, will ya!”
The three Emery County commissioners attending the town hall gathering sit silent, knowing many of those who bothered to attend were a vocal minority who will never be satisfied. But Romney doesn’t seem to mind. As a two-time presidential candidate, he’s had his share of spirited political discussions with voters and he relishes the back and forth.
“I appreciate your being here,” Romney tells the crowd, as his staff hustles him off to another town hall in Price. “I appreciate the fact that we have different points of view, but we're all fighting for the same thing. We love our country. We love our God. We love the freedoms that we have. We wish we had more freedom from the federal government — that I agree with.”
Romney wanted a different job: president. And he didn't need this, a somewhat hostile town hall in rural Utah, getting yelled at by guys in camo. He could have been skiing near his rustic mansion in Deer Valley or strolling on the beach near his house in La Jolla. And yet, here in Castle Dale, he looks energized, happy, like this is exactly where he wants to be.
He knows he's only got so much more time. He's 72. There's this term, and he's suggested one more. For the things he loves most, outside of his family — the political arena, Utah, public policy, and his country — there's no better opportunity than this one to satisfy those things.
Three months into his first term, I ask if his wife was right about the Senate being where he belongs.
"So far, yes, it's been more enjoyable than I had expected. It has stretched my mind in a way that the long hours on the internet doesn't do. And, I believe I am able to make a contribution to our state."
Emily Hoeven contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the the annual retreat Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has held for political donors and power brokers was at Romney's home in Deer Valley. The retreat was at Deer Valley Resort. It also incorrectly stated that Romney inherited the Senate chamber desk of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Romney inherited Kennedy's office desk.