Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and the only member of his party to twice vote to convict former president Donald Trump in politically charged impeachment trials, announced last week that he will not seek a second term in the Senate representing Utah, saying in an interview that it is time for a new generation to “step up” and “shape the world they’re going to live in.”
Romney, 76, said his decision not to run again was heavily influenced by his belief that a second term, which would take him into his 80s, probably would be less productive and less satisfying than the current term has been. He blamed that both on the disarray he sees among House Republicans and on his own lack of confidence in the leadership of President Biden and Trump.
“It’s very difficult for the House to operate, from what I can tell,” he said in a lengthy telephone interview previewing his formal announcement, “and two, and perhaps more importantly, we’re probably going to have either Trump or Biden as our next president. And Biden is unable to lead on important matters and Trump is unwilling to lead on important matters.”
Romney, elected to the Senate in 2018 with 63 percent of the vote, said he will serve out the duration of his term, which ends in January 2025. His decision not to seek reelection next year is likely to mark the end of a political career that has been notable, especially in the Trump era, for independence and a willingness to stand up against the base of his party that has shifted dramatically in Trump’s direction in the decade since Romney was its standard-bearer.
From the time Trump first became a candidate until today, Romney has been among his most outspoken critics, and nothing about his departure is expected to change that. In the weeks before Trump’s 2017 inauguration, Romney publicly acquiesced, expressing hope for the president-elect’s leadership while he was under consideration to be secretary of state. But his turnabout was short-lived.
Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in the 2020 impeachment trial, which involved Trump’s efforts to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign and withholding aid to that country. Romney was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict in the second trial, which came weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Both votes, but especially the first, cost Romney politically, at home in Utah and more broadly within a party that Trump has come to dominate. He acknowledged the damage he had sustained, but said, “If there were no cost to doing what’s right, there’d be no such thing as courage. … I think it’s fair to say that the support I get in Utah is because people respect someone who does what they believe is right, even if they disagree with me.”
Republicans have speculated that because of his opposition to Trump, Romney could face a difficult battle to win a second term if he decided to run again. But the senator said fear of losing had nothing to do with his decision. In fact, he said, he was confident that, had he decided to run again, he would prevail. He pointed to a recent poll in Utah that showed his approval rebounding to 56 percent, a sharp rise from the 40 percent recorded in May and numbers showing him well ahead of potential rivals.
The highest-achieving Mormon politician of his time, Romney twice sought the presidency and served as governor of Massachusetts before moving to Utah and being elected to the Senate. His father, George, was a governor of Michigan, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968 and served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard M. Nixon.
Asked about the 2024 presidential election, Romney said he would have liked to help someone other than Trump become the nominee, but “that apparently isn’t going to happen.” He added, “I doubt my support will mean anything positive to any of the candidates at the finish line. I’m not looking to get involved in that.”
He noted that three of the contenders for the nomination — Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — all speak the language of the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) wing of the party and together account for the overwhelming majority of support, with Trump far ahead of the others.
Candidates toward whom he is more disposed — he mentioned former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — continue to struggle. “It’s pretty clear that the party is inclined to a populist demagogue message,” he said.
Asked how he sees a general election rematch between Biden and Trump, Romney said, “Today I’d say 50-50. If I had to bet, I’d say it could go either way. So much can happen between now and then.” He also said that talk by the centrist group No Labels of mounting an independent candidacy in 2024 was a mistake and would only help to reelect Trump. He said he has spoken “many times” to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who is flirting with such a bid. “I lobby continuously that it would only elect Trump.”
Romney said he doubted that the criminal charges pending against Trump — a total of 91 felony counts in four cases and jurisdictions — would have much political effect one way or the other. So far, the indictments have appeared to strengthen Trump in the nomination contest.
“People respond to new news,” Romney said. “They don’t respond to old news. I mean, January 6th is old news. The documents, it’s old news. The call to Raffensberger , it’s old news.” He was referring to the charge that Trump illegally retained classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and to his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, in which he encouraged him to “find” enough votes to change the 2020 election results in that state.
Instead, Romney said, the investigation of Hunter Biden is newer news and therefore has the potential for political impact that could harm the president, although he said he would “be surprised” if the president had benefited personally financially from his son’s business dealings abroad. Asked whether he was equating Trump’s legal cases with the Hunter Biden investigation, he said, “No, no, no. I’m just looking at the political impact of them.” Romney has said Trump deserves the presumption of innocence but has called him unfit to serve as president.
He spoke as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) directed House committees to begin an impeachment inquiry into the president. Romney said he had no doubt that McCarthy was acting under pressure from members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus. “This is not an impeachment,” he said. “This is an inquiry, and I have heard no allegations that rise to the high-crimes-and-misdemeanors standard of the Constitution.”
Instead of involving himself in the presidential campaign, Romney said he will remain as active as he can be in the Senate through the end of next year. “I’m not going out on a farewell tour,” he said. “I’m not leaving the party, not retiring.” Even after he leaves the Senate, he said, “You cannot expect me to hit the beach. I’m going to be as productive as I possibly can be.”
Romney said that he sees three overriding challenges for the country and that they require presidential leadership. Senators can do only so much, he said, adding that because he doubts either Trump or Biden is prepared to take on some of these issues, “I don’t think the next seven and a half years in the Senate would be productive.”
One issue, he said, is the need for a comprehensive strategy to deal with the authoritarian leaders abroad, specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A second is the lack of a strategy to deal with global climate change, “not just feel-good things here in the U.S.” The third is dealing with the nation’s fiscal issues — debts and deficits. “You’ve got both Biden and Trump saying we won’t touch entitlements,” he said. “I think, ‘How irresponsible is that!’”
Romney was born in Michigan, where his father was chief executive of American Motors Corp. before serving as governor. He settled in Boston, becoming wealthy through work in private equity as a co-founder of Bain Capital. He began his political career in 1994 in an unsuccessful effort to defeat then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). After helping to rescue the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, he was elected as governor of Massachusetts in 2002.
Romney stepped down after one term to seek his party’s presidential nomination in 2008. That campaign ended in failure, but he won the nomination four years later, ultimately losing to then-President Barack Obama in a campaign that many around him believed he would win. He returned to the business world but got the itch to return to politics, briefly exploring a third presidential run in 2016 and seeking the Senate seat in his adoptive state of Utah in 2018. He said he had been told that as a former governor, he would be frustrated with life in the Senate. “The reality is my expectations were vastly exceeded, and perhaps I got spoiled,” he said.
Romney said he was proud of the work he has been able to do as a senator and pointed to a long list of items as evidence, including bipartisan work on a covid-19 relief bill when Trump and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were far apart and on infrastructure during the Biden administration. He also cited provisions for religious liberty that were attached to a bill mandating federal recognition of same-sex marriages and the reworking of the Electoral Count Act.
Romney, a traditional conservative, acknowledged that the Republican Party of 2023 is quite different from the party that nominated him for president in 2012. He said his wing of the party is now “very, very small” in comparison with the Trump wing. But he declined to call the GOP irretrievably broken. “If it can change in the direction of a populist,” he said, “it can change back in the direction of my wing of the Republican Party.”
He said he has been asked by many people how he can continue to remain in the party. “Well,” he said, “because I want to get it back.” The party could realign again, he said, but only if Republicans learned to compete for and attract young voters, who today side heavily with Democrats. Romney himself struggled to win over young voters in his 2012 campaign. “Young people care about climate change,” he said. “They care about things that the MAGA Republicans’ don’t care about.”
In the 2024 presidential race, former vice president Mike Pence has appealed to traditional conservatism. Romney said that Pence has no chance to win but discounted Pence’s prospects as a true test of sentiment on traditional conservatism vs. Trumpian populism. “I don’t think he has … any delusions that he’s going to become the nominee,” he said. “I think he’s running for other reasons, one to repair his legacy. … What he’s saying is important to be said. … I’m glad he’s running and saying those things. I respect that.”
What leverage do those like Romney have in a party so dominated by Trump? “I think we have the leverage of being right,” he said, “and in the final analysis, right will prevail.”
Romney said he is alarmed by some of what he sees in the party concerning foreign policy. “I listen to some of the people in the Trump wing … talk about how we should be ready to, you know, to just push against China in the Taiwan Strait, and I ask, ‘Are you really willing to go to war with China’” while opposing sending more aid to Ukraine in their war against Russian aggression?
Romney was early in pinpointing Putin’s Russia as a major threat to U.S. security during his 2012 campaign, and gave credit to Trump for instituting a tougher approach to China. But in contrast to many in his party, he was not sharply critical of recent efforts by Biden administration officials to engage with China.
“Our posture relative to China has been significantly strengthened by Russia’s weakness in Ukraine and the support we’ve given Ukraine and also by strengthening of NATO,” he said. To dissuade China from its current course, he said, requires the United States and other nations to stand together, adding “I have a lot of confidence in [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken. I believe he understands that and is endeavoring to do that.”
Romney said he remains worried about the state of democracy in the United States. “I think it’s of paramount importance to maintain our commitment to the Constitution and the liberal constitutional order,” he said. “And I know that there are some in MAGA world who would like Republican rule, or authoritarian rule by Donald Trump. But I think they may be forgetting that the majority of people in America would not be voting for Donald J. Trump. The majority would probably be voting for the Democrats.”
Among his parting thoughts at the end of the interview was an affirmation of his believe in America’s resilience. “I do believe that our institutions, while under constant barrage, are strong,” he said, “that our court system is strong and that fundamentally the American people stand by the Constitution and the constitutional norms.”