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Romney: A Nuanced Candidacy for the Utah Senate

How is Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, allowed to run for a seat on the Utah Senate? The former Governor of Massachusetts is not an immediately obvious choice to represent the midwestern state. However, the constitutional requirements for running for Senate are minimal. To qualify, Romney only needed to “be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen” upon election (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 3, clause 3). Thanks to a summer home in the Wasatch Mountains, Romney is not only permitted to run in Utah—he is, upon second glance, a nearly perfect candidate.

Currently, Romney has an approval rating that fluctuates around 64 percent. In 2012, during his presidential bid, he won Utah with 72.8 percent of the vote, a 10.5-point increase from John McCain’s victory in 2008, giving him all of Utah’s six electoral votes. Significantly, in the 2012 election, Romney also received a higher proportion of the vote than Orrin Hatch, the incumbent senator whose seat Romney is now trying to fill, who only received 65.2 percent of votes. 

This difference is significant, as Utah is one of nine straight-ticket voting states, meaning that Utah allows its voters to check a box and vote for all of a single party’s candidates on the ballot. The variation between Senator Hatch and Romney shows that there was a group of voters who opted not to vote a straight-ticket, for a variety of reasons. In his current campaign, Romney’s staff is likely hoping that one of those reasons was his unique appeal to Utah voters. 

Utah’s demographics, on a surface level, seem to be those of a typical red state. The majority of both the State House and Senate are Republican; the voting districts look like jigsaw puzzle pieces, shaped around the rare blue island in a sea of red. Utah is massively pro-life and has vehemently opposed same-sex marriage, and has recently brought these concerns to court. According to the most recent census, Utah is about 90 percent white.

That being said, Utah is unique among red states in that 60 percent of its population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also referred to as LDS or Mormons). Romney is a lifelong member of the Mormon church who served as a bishop in Belmont, Massachusetts. This might be his best qualification for inserting himself into the Utah Republican party, since as of 2016, the Utah State Legislature was stacked 91-12 in favor of Mormon legislators. Romney is the highest-profile Mormon politician of his generation, joining a long legacy of Mormon political aspirants, including the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., who ran for US President in 1844. As a Mormon well-known for espousing family values, Romney has gained the devotion of many pious LDS voters. His state loyalties, then, are proving much less important than his cultural ones. 

Yet, the LDS church has complicated issues by taking several surprising stances for a conservative church in the past few years. Most notably, it has worked with Utah politicians to make refugees a major religious and political concern. For example, the “I Was a Stranger” initiative encouraged LDS church membership to reach out to and work with refugees, and as a result, Utah has more refugees than any other state. Why a traditionally conservative party might choose to make such a progressive move is worth questioning: from a cynical standpoint, this LDS church policy plays into a push to make the Mormon church more “global,” now that the majority of its adherents live outside of the US.

Similarly, the LDS church has taken a strong position on immigration issues. It condemned the debates over DACA that occurred earlier this year, saying that “we call upon our national leaders to create policies that provide hope and opportunities for those, sometimes referred to as ‘Dreamers,’ who grew up here from a young age and for whom this country is their home. ” These are statements that would not sound out of place in a Democratic senator’s statement on the DACA debate. 

REFUGEE ARRIVALS TO UTAH PER YEAR

  Refugee Processing Center

Refugee Processing Center

Of course, the LDS church making a statement doesn’t always dictate what Mormon senators or congressmen and -women will do, as evidenced by the fact that Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee did not immediately abandon their party to defend the Dreamers once the LDS church issued this statement. Similarly, it would be inaccurate to say that Romney’s Mormon faith dictates everything he does in the political world. Still, a Mormon image is critical to election in Utah and, in this current moment, the Mormon image includes some positions that seem to border on outright liberalism. 

For these reasons and others, Romney seems to have cultivated an image of opposition to the Trump Administration. He spoke out against some of then-candidate Trump’s positions, calling him “a fraud” and calling for Trump to release his tax returns. Since then, Romney has called on Trump to take stronger positions opposing racism after the violence in Charlottesville, and to extend more empathy toward immigrants. Additionally, he has spoken out against sexual assault. Romney also has reasons for opposing Trump based not in politics, but in faith. Powerful members of the Trump team, specifically Steve Bannon, have made anti-Mormon comments that did not receive much press in the mainstream media, but are well known in Mormon circles. Bannon once accused Romney of using a Mormon Mission in France to avoid serving in the Vietnam War, while also saying that Roy Moore, a former Alabama senate candidate who was accused of sexually assaulting minors, “has more honor and integrity in a pinky finger” than Romney and his family have in their DNA.

Romney is not the only Mormon senator to take a strong anti-Trump stance: Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has regularly condemned the immorality of the current administration and famously refused to vote for the president, documenting his ethical qualms in his book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. Both Romney and Flake have been posited as possible 2020 Trump challengers. Flake spoke out against Trump’s executive order prohibiting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in 2017, causing many Mormons to speculate that he was taking the church’s positions on immigration straight to Washington. Similarly, Flake publically donated $100 to the current Democratic Alabama senator, Doug Jones’, campaign, in order to openly oppose Roy Moore; Flake posted about this donation on Twitter, saying “country over party.” This donation was made after Steve Bannon’s anti-Mormon comments. However, in contrast to Romney’s current political success, Flake is leaving his Senate seat in 2018, due in part to opposition to the anti-Trump positions he has taken.

Romney and Flake are part of a long Mormon tradition of making their faith political. As mentioned before, Joseph Smith ran for president on a platform of religious freedom. Smith also spoke of something called the “White Horse Prophecy” that gained national attention during Romney’s 2012 Presidential run. This prophecy, in essence, states that Mormons will eventually save Washington from corruption like the white horse from the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. This prophecy is apocryphal and is not mainstream doctrine in the LDS church by any means, but is part of a long tradition of Mormon leaders speaking out about politics. Brigham Young, the first governor of Utah and second president of the Mormon church, once said that “if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all, it must be done by this Mormon people.” In the most recent meeting of the general LDS church body, the current president, Russell M. Nelson, made a point of encouraging all Mormons to vote and participate in their government, while also maintaining a non-partisan stance. Some Mormons, particularly liberal Mormons, use this history to speculate that individuals like Flake and Romney might just “save” the United States from the presumed evils of a Trump presidency. 

This hope has not become a reality because, in spite of all of the reasons liberal and moderate Mormons and Utahns want to think of LDS legislators as saviors, Romney has also tried to work with the Trump administration. He somewhat infamously interviewed for the Secretary of State position that eventually went to Rex Tillerson. The entire process resulted in little more than a bad photo op at a dinner where a chagrined Romney posed with a smirking Trump, generating a plethora of memes about Romney’s lack of spine. Romney’s website for his Senate campaign expresses support for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is unsurprising given that Paul Ryan was his 2012 vice-presidential nominee. His website also announces Romney’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which he would like to see repealed and replaced by something that escapes “one-size-fits-all bureaucracy.” And, defying his former stance in support of immigrants, Romney said in February that he would be even more of a “hawk” on immigration than Trump, much to the frustration of the liberal Utah Mormons who thought Romney might be a moderate voice. In March, Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement for his Senate campaign, tweeting his thanks in true presidential style. 

This pattern of flip-flopping typifies Romney’s political record. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney created something very similar to the ACA, then dubbed “Romneycare,” but condemned Obamacare while campaigning in 2012. In 1994, Romney said that “abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” but is now staunchly pro-life. In 2002, he supported tough gun laws in Massachusetts, but his website puts him firmly on the pro-gun end of the spectrum for the 2018 Utah Senate race. While changing one’s mind is absolutely possible and really ought to be encouraged within a healthy government, Romney’s position changes often seem too politically expedient to be the result of a genuinely repentant heart. 

Much of Romney’s right-wing opposition in his Utah race comes from critics who say that Romney is one person in Massachusetts and another in Utah, such that his constituents have no idea who he would be in Washington. Mike Kennedy, Romney’s most prominent opponent in the Republican primary, is currently a prominent state legislator in Utah’s Republican party. His campaign website describes him as “a lot of things—State Legislator, Doctor, Lawyer, Eagle Scout, Father of eight, and Self-made man.” His Mormon faith features prominently, though not explicitly, on his campaign page. Cutting federal spending, jumpstarting the economy, securing the border, and protecting life are also front-and-center. Apart from the irony of Romney running against another Kennedy (Romney lost to Ted Kennedy in a 1994 Senate bid), there isn’t anything particularly surprising about his candidacy. 

Further right, Craig Bowden is a Libertarian who consistently runs in Utah elections without much success. Upon Googling “Craig Bowden Utah” to find his campaign, a web address for a 2014 House race comes up before the page for his current Senate campaign. A Marine Corps veteran, a self-proclaimed “supporter of liberty,” and a father of six children, he wants to protect the Second Amendment, advocate for non-interventionist foreign policy, and promote economic liberty. In a deviation from typical Utah politics, Bowden also wants to end the War on Drugs and proposes leniency for the non-violent drug offenders that make up a third of Utah’s prison population. As a part of this platform, he also wants criminal justice reform.

While both Bowden and Kennedy, in other circumstances, could be notable candidates, Romney’s biggest obstacle is likely Jenny Wilson, the Democratic frontrunner. She is from Salt Lake City, the liberal bubble in an otherwise deeply red state, and proclaims on the front page of her website that “Utah is where I’m from, and where I’ll stay.” She was the first woman elected to Salt Lake’s City Council in 2005 and has spent much of her life in public service. In her biography, she emphasizes that she graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah. Her father, Ted Wilson, was a popular mayor in Salt Lake from 1976 to 1985.

Wilson’s policies echo the sentiments of Utah’s moderate left; she dwells on DACA and immigration, appealing to the popularity of immigrants in Mormon culture. Healthcare and economic well-being for all Utahns also make the top of her priority list. Her first project, however, will be to “make Washington work again.” Wilson opposes the recent Republican tax bill and wants more decency from the people governing the country. She also points out that she would be the first female senator from Utah, a point of particular interest in what many are calling the “Year of Women.”

What is most clear from Wilson’s candidacy, however, is that it plays directly off of Romney’s perceived shortcomings as a candidate. She promises to remain in Utah and emphasizes her Utah origins; Romney’s harshest critics claim that he is an absentee politician who cares more about the opinion of GOP big-wigs in D.C. than  of those he represents. Wilson emphasizes supporting immigrants; Romney has changed his mind several times. Romney is publicly and prominently LDS; Wilson neither mentions nor alludes to her faith on her website and will only say that she was “baptized Mormon” when questioned about her beliefs. Wilson—and Romney’s other opponents—present an alternative to a man whose political positions are far less important to most Utah voters than the political reputation he holds.  

While nothing is certain until election night, Mitt Romney will probably win the Utah Senate seat without much competition, meaning that distilling his political history and values becomes an important task for those curious about how the Senate will shift after the upcoming, tumultuous midterms. Romney’s political position, at the end of the day, is far too complicated to be boiled down to simple partisanship, a penchant for having the right opinions at the right time, or even the connection between his politics and his faith. If anything can be concluded from examining Romney closely, it’s that, in spite of hopes on both sides of the aisle, he likely will be neither a white horse nor a white knight. If elected, he will likely be another Mormon senator from Utah, bringing “Utah’s values” to Washington while balancing the realities of electoral politics and deep-seated religious sentiment.

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