Mike Lee needs help. Mired in a tight Utah Senate race with independent candidate Evan McMullin, the Republican incumbent has implored his colleague Mitt Romney to “Please, get on board.” So far, Romney has refrained from endorsing either candidate, saying “both are good friends.” But for Romney, this should be a time to put patriotism above both friendship and party. American democracy is on the ballot in Utah, even more than elsewhere.
Romney has already displayed more political courage than most of his Republican colleagues. During the 2016 campaign he denounced his party’s presidential candidate as a “fraud” and a “phony.” In 2020, he was the only Republican senator who voted to convict President Donald Trump after his impeachment for abuse of power. In 2021, he was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict the former president of inciting the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
Lee has some anti-Trump history of his own. In October 2016 he urged Trump to “step aside” as the Republican nominee and later said he had cast “a protest vote” for an independent candidate — Evan McMullin. But unlike Romney, Lee morphed into a strong Trump supporter, and texts revealed last spring that he played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the former president’s effort to reverse the 2020 election outcome, until it became clear there was no widespread evidence of fraud.
Lee urged White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to work with Sidney Powell, a lawyer who subsequently spent weeks floating unsubstantiated claims of election fraud on Trump’s behalf. When Powell’s efforts failed to gain traction, Lee recommended another lawyer, John Eastman, who concocted the theory that Vice President Mike Pence could be “the ultimate arbiter” of the election.
Lee soured on Eastman’s plan, too, but he continued to search for a way to help Trump overturn the election outcome. “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates,” he suggested to Meadows in early December, “there could be a path.” As late as Jan. 4, 2021, he reported “calling state legislators for hours today, and am going to spend hours doing the same tomorrow. … Even if they can’t convene, it might be enough if a majority of them are willing to sign a statement indicating how they would vote.”
Lee’s efforts to enlist state legislators in negating the election outcome were unavailing, and when Congress reconvened hours after the attack on the Capitol, he — unlike most of his Republican congressional colleagues — voted to certify contested electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
When reporters questioned Romney about Lee’s involvement in Trump’s effort to overturn the election outcome, he replied, “From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think Sen. Lee has done anything illegal.”
But mere legality is insufficient to preserve democracy. Victor Orbán and his Fidesz party cronies engineered substantial democratic backsliding in Hungary not by breaking laws, but by bending or altering them. U.S. state legislators appointing “alternative slates” of electors would have been an equally audacious and damaging violation of established constitutional norms.
In their best-selling book “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasized the importance of “unwritten rules” and “guardrails” for preserving democratic institutions and procedures under pressure. Precisely because they are not “illegal,” violations of democratic norms can only be addressed politically. Often, crucial leverage rests with people like Romney — actual or potential allies whose support or opposition defines the boundary between acceptable politics and extremism.
In a July essay for The Atlantic, Romney lamented “our national malady of denial, deceit, and distrust” and warned that Trump’s return to the White House “would feed the sickness, probably rendering it incurable.” But to imagine that the current threat to American democracy begins and ends with Trump is itself a massive exercise in denial.
Most of the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted to “decertify” electoral votes on Jan. 6 are on the ballot in November. In all, more than 370 Republican candidates for Congress and key statewide offices “have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election.” Their anti-democratic rhetoric and behavior is corrosive and dangerous with or without Trump on the scene.
To make matters worse, four conservative Supreme Court justices have expressed interest in granting state legislatures unchecked powers over federal elections, paving the way for precisely the sort of undemocratic election reversal pursued by Lee and others.
Whether Romney endorses Lee, McMullin or neither may have significant partisan consequences. McMullin has said that, if elected, he will not caucus with either party, so his victory could potentially cost Republicans a narrow Senate majority.
The natural temptation in such circumstances is to duck a hard choice between immediate partisan advantage and the less tangible goal of bolstering democratic norms. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Romney told reporters in March, “I don’t think endorsements make any difference,” or that his aides were “annoyed” by Lee’s recent public appeal for support.
The historical record of democratic breakdowns is littered with misjudgments by mainstream politicians who imagined that they could duck hard choices, overlooking undemocratic behavior in pursuit of substantive political goals, only later to find the “guardrails” of democracy stretched beyond repair.
However much Romney may wish otherwise, he is on the spot. In this instance, as he has done in the past, it is up to him to define the boundary between acceptable politics and extremism.
Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. His latest book, “Democracy Erodes from the Top,” will be published next spring by Princeton University Press.