Maybe it’s because he bucked former President Donald Trump one too many times.
Maybe it’s because he called his Republican colleagues’ plan to challenge the 2020 presidential election an egregious ploy.
Maybe it’s because he was one of the first GOP senators to acknowledge Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.
Or maybe Utah Republicans just don’t like Sen. Mitt Romney, and never will.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 64% of Republicans in the state disapprove of his job performance, including half who strongly disapprove.
While the first-term senator’s overall 50% approval rating among Utah voters is only slightly lower than where it has been the past year, his 46% disapproval in the latest survey is higher than ever.
A segment of the Utah population has always taken issue with Romney’s position on Trump. Just this month Trump supporters accosted him at the Salt Lake airport and then chanted “traitor” on a flight to Washington.
Romney was often on the same page as the former president regarding policy, but he didn’t shy away from calling Trump out, especially when it came to matters of character.
“His comments about President Trump escalated over the past several months, particularly the last couple of weeks,” noted Jason Perry, director the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“But what will be more interesting is what happens over the coming months and years when he is no longer put in the position of being expected to be in opposition to the leader of his own party.”
Romney is not alone in the state’s political doghouse.
GOP Sen. Mike Lee’s 41% disapproval rating in the new poll is his highest in the past year. The survey shows 45% of Utahns approve of his job performance, about the same as last year.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen said it’s impossible to know for sure why Lee and Romney have such high disapproval marks, but it seems likely that some number of Republicans do not believe the Utah senators stood up enough for Trump.
Rasmussen polled 1,000 registered Utah voters Jan. 12-15. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Unlike Romney, though, Lee remains strong in his own party. The poll found 69% of Republicans approve of his performance.
Lee campaigned for Trump in the November election, even comparing him to beloved Book of Mormon military leader Captain Moroni. But Lee did not join Republican lawmakers in objecting to states’ electoral votes as Trump pushed hard for them to do. Lee said the Constitution makes it clear that the only role of Congress is to open and count the ballots.
While only a third of GOP voters approve of Romney, 84% of Democrats in the state like the job he is doing.
Romney’s statewide approval is higher than Lee’s, but the 2012 Republican presidential nominee is far more popular with Democrats and unaffiliated voters than he is in his own party.
Democrats like Romney because he is willing to speak “his truth” at a time when truth is “something that’s not particularly in vogue” in the GOP, said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant.
“I have to be really honest. I’m slightly flabbergasted by the number of Republicans who don’t approve of his performance. He’s certainly a conservative member of the Republican Party with really a singular exception, which is his unwillingness to go along with all of the antics and, frankly, undemocratic tendencies of Donald Trump,” he said.
Merchant said some Democrats suggested the party not run a candidate against Romney in 2024, should he seek reelection. But, he said, the party has no intention of doing that, citing differences on several issues.
Romney’s poll numbers are now reminiscent of those for the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was the GOP presidential nominee preceding Romney, Rasmussen said.
An Economist/YouGov poll showed McCain remained more popular with Democrats than Republicans days after his death in August 2018. The survey found that just more than half of Americans who identify as Republicans had a favorable view of McCain, while 75% of Democrats had a somewhat or very favorable view of him.
Rasmussen said Romney’s comments about Trump win him praise among Democrats and independents, but cause concern among many of the more conservative Republicans.
Romney, who did not support Trump for reelection, has expressed dismay about the direction of the Republican Party since at least 2016 when Trump became its presidential nominee. He often criticized the former president the past two years, including directly blaming him for the deadly incursion at the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6.
Romney was the only Republican to vote in favor of removing Trump from office last year in the Senate impeachment trial. He will to make that decision again when the Senate tries Trump in the coming weeks after the House impeached him earlier this month for inciting an insurrection.
Perry said Romney has been in a difficult position in his own party the past four years, but that could change with Democratic President Joe Biden.
“We’re going to see how his party reacts to him when there’s someone from the opposition party in the White House,” he said. “That is a dynamic that has changed, and I think it will change his relationship with Utah voters as well. But it will take some time.”
Both Romney and Lee have expressed willingness to work with Biden and Democrats to find common ground on issues.
Lee emailed a survey to Utahns this week seeking their opinions to help shape the agenda for “conservative” senators this year. Issues to focus on included Big Tech censorship, election integrity, protecting private health care and Second Amendment rights.
Rasmussen said it will be interesting to see where the poll numbers go for Lee and Romney in 2021.
“It may be that these numbers are an aberration caused by the emotional impact of the election and events leading up to the inauguration,” he said. “On the other hand, it may be that these events will have a lasting impact on public perceptions of Lee and Romney, and other Republicans around the country.”