SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Even though Mitt Romney’s status as one of few Republicans willing to publicly criticize President Donald Trump is well known is his adopted home state, his unequivocal speech before voting yes on impeachment Wednesday caught many in Utah by surprise.
Republicans in the state are unusually divided on the president, so while some were heartened to see Romney cast what he described as an agonizing vote dictated by his conscience, Trump supporters were left angry and frustrated.
Still, with four years to go before any re-election campaign, Romney has a long time to explain his vote to an electorate with a deep well of goodwill that gives him a celebrity-like status.
“There will be ramifications,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. But “people do ultimately care about what he says, even if they don’t agree with him.”
Romney appeared emotional during his speech on the Senate floor. He told reporters that he’d been waking up in the early-morning hours as his mind churned over what to do, and cited a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hymn about doing the right thing despite the consequences.
Romney’s key role in saving the troubled 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City paired with his status as the first major-party presidential candidate from the state’s predominant faith widely known as the Mormon church has made him well-known and liked in the state where he moved after his failed 2012 presidential run.
Many Utah voters share Romney’s wariness about Trump. A nationwide Associated Press survey of midterm voters in 2018 found that while two-thirds of church members voted Republican, just over half approved of Trump’s job performance. The VoteCast survey also found that 64% of Utah voters wanted to see the senator confront the president.
Romney and Trump have an on-again-off-again history, with Trump once calling for the senator to be impeached. There’s no provision in the U.S. Constitution for that. While one Utah lawmaker has recently introduced a bill that would create a path to recall a senator, its unclear if there would be a serious push for it to be used on Romney, even after he became the lone Republican to vote for Trump’s removal from office.
State leaders who have applauded Trump on issues like public lands lambasted Romney’s invocation of morality, while voters who appreciated his campaign promise to occasionally stand up to the president cheered the more strident message.
Shelly Cluff, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother in suburban Riverton, is a Republican who’s never been a fan of Trump. She was pleasantly surprised at Romney’s stance.
“I was greatly impressed by his integrity, his willingness to put so much on the line in order not to violate his conscience, in order to stand with a clear conscience before God,” Cluff said.
Still, she knows that not all her neighbors feel the same, including several who didn’t vote for him in 2016 but have since come around.
“I’ve been taken aback by how many people have been really upset and disappointed in Mitt Romney,” she said.
Count among those voters like Ray Clark, a 71-year-old electrical contractor in rural Kanab. He said he’s “furious” about Romney’s vote, and chalks it up to the senator’s personal dislike of the president.
Still, he’s not sure if Romney will ultimately suffer any true political consequences in Utah.
“Right now, I’d say he doesn’t stand a chance. Four years from now, who knows?” he said.