Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) impending exit from political life is dealing a significant blow to the anti-Trump movement as they face life without one of their most prominent leaders and the potential White House return of the former president.
Romney’s decision to retire from the Senate at the end of 2024 comes after he voted to convict former President Trump in both impeachment trials — the only Republican senator to do so — and spent the past 18 months hammering Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Other top anti-Trump figures believe the void his retirement creates cannot be easily filled and could set back the movement even further.
“It’s a great loss to the Senate and to the Republican Party,” former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), an outspoken Trump critic, said in an interview. “Sadly, it is a problem that far too many good people who actually care more about getting things done than performative politics, they’re coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth dealing with the circus in Washington.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get a new generation of leaders to step up, but we can’t afford to let the circus be the only show in town,” Hogan continued. “My concern is that those of us who still care about the party and the country and would like to get us back on track … we can’t all give up and walk away. We’ve got to continue to fight, even though it’s an uphill battle and even though, currently, it doesn’t look so good.”
Romney, 76, said in interviews this week that the prospect of a House GOP-led legislative slog, the dwindling space for bipartisan work in a potential second term, and the lack of desire to work into his 80s played key roles in his decision.
But his decision is the latest blow to the anti-Trump movement, which has lost more of its political figures with every election cycle. Only two of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump remain in Congress after the 2022 midterms. The most outspoken among them, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who served as vice chairwoman of the House committee investigating Jan. 6, handily lost a primary to a Trump-backed challenger.
In the Senate, two of the seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment opted to retire before the midterms. A third resigned earlier this year to take a job as a university president.
Moderate former GOP Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker opted not to seek another term in 2022 while Hogan was term-limited. And New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), another Trump critic, is not running for reelection in 2024.
Adding insult to injury for the group, Trump is also the leader in the GOP presidential field, while those critical of him, like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have found it tough to make inroads with voters.
Outspoken anti-Trumpers are worried that the lane for that type of Republican is closed off for the foreseeable future, which means it will be impossible to fill the void left by the Utah senator.
“I really just don’t think it [gets filled],” said Tim Miller, who served as a top aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) 2016 bid and is a writer-at-large for The Bulwark, an anti-Trump publication. “I don’t think that there is a comeback. The voters in the Republican Party do not want these kinds of candidates.”
“I don’t really even think we’re done,” Miller said, referring to the key losses suffered by anti-Trump voters via retirement or primary defeats. He noted that Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who voted to convict Trump in 2021, could be atop that list in the coming years. “I think there’s another, probably, decade. Romney is sort of the tip of the spear.”
Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a frequent Trump critic, argued the “conundrum” Republicans of his ilk face is simple: Their views are tailored for a general election, but no anti-Trump Republican can make it through a primary, with the independent lane not serving as much of an option.
“They just don’t see a path forward for themselves, and that’s the tragedy,” Dent said in an interview. “This has been the tragedy all along — that Trump dominates the primary but is a catastrophe in the general elections, particularly in swing districts and swing states. This is the conundrum Republicans have to come to grips with.”
Romney’s loss is also expected to be felt in the future of bipartisan negotiations, especially in what could be a second term for President Biden, and he might not be alone in creating that void in the moderate ranks within the upper chamber.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are facing tough reelection fights next year, though neither has publicly announced whether they are seeking another term. This comes after nearly a half-dozen Senate Republicans who were all known for their work across the aisle declined to seek reelection, many of which were replaced by candidates who were much more pro-Trump.
“I’m sad,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was a political anomaly last cycle, having voted to convict Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and subsequently won reelection, said about Romney’s announcement. “I think [Romney] plays a very key role in the Senate, certainly in our conference. I think he is a voice of reason and integrity and he certainly has his fair share of political courage.”
Romney could continue to serve as one of the leading critics of Trump, but he would have to do it from outside of public office. Still, he will have potentially the largest platform of those in that world should he decide to keep it up.
Hogan argued that while it can be a struggle for some to maintain their influence on the outside, it is by no means impossible. He himself has been a frequent presence on cable news, pens op-eds, does fellowships and speaks on college campuses.
“You don’t have to be in elected office to be a voice,” Hogan said. But he conceded that “you’ve got to work at” building and maintaining your brand.
“It’s almost like I still have some of the clout of being governor without the real responsibilities,” he added.