Romney’s short Senate career has been punctuated by big moments of distancing himself from the president: marching in a Black Lives Matter protest and penning an op-ed before he even took his Senate seat vowing to push back against Trump when needed. He also occasionally criticizes Trump’s rhetoric, but he’s careful not to get dragged into a back and forth with the president on Twitter or elsewhere.
Yet the party’s 2012 presidential nominee has also largely backed Trump’s appointments and much of his agenda. His voting record is a regular reminder that he’s still a conservative, which his GOP colleagues hope is a sign that he will divorce his differences with Trump from the monumental opportunity the conservative movement sees before it.
“I really don’t know what he’ll do,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “I think he’s probably wrestling with it just like he has on other issues.”
Romney’s opinion may not be decisive: He’d need one other Republican senator to join him and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Collins in opposition to derail McConnell’s hopes of a swift confirmation. For now, that would take a surprise defection after vulnerable Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) backed McConnell’s strategy.
But should Romney be the only other Republican to join the Senate GOP’s moderate bloc, it would invite the explosive scenario of Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 vote on the Senate floor for a Supreme Court nominee, perhaps just days before Election Day.
Romney’s decision may do a lot to illustrate what kind of senator he will be as he finishes his first two years in the chamber. Romney has little of the baggage of his colleagues over past Supreme Court fights or battles over precedent. At a 2018 debate, Romney said Senate Republicans’ blockade of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, set no new standard and did not say how he would handle an election-year confirmation under Trump.
Conservative advocacy groups are keeping a close eye on Romney. The Judicial Crisis Network announced Monday that it was pouring $2.2 million into ads boosting the effort to fill the seat. The targeted states are home to vulnerable GOP incumbents, except one: Romney’s Utah.
But Romney is insulated from immediate political ramifications. His term isn’t up until 2024, and that gives Romney significant freedom to make his own way.
With the filibuster gutted on all nominations after recent rules changes by both parties, Senate Democrats are powerless to stop Trump’s appointment on their own. But many enjoy good relationships with Romney and are counting on him to take yet another stand against Trump.
“He’s shown extraordinary courage before,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I hope he does again.”