Utahans reacted to Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision to break Republican ranks with a mixture of pride and dismay Wednesday, with some in this majority-Mormon state even suggesting that his vote to remove President Trump from office recalled a prophecy attributed to the church founder Joseph Smith.
Although generally debunked as apocryphal by modern historians, the so-called White Horse Prophecy dates to 1844 when Smith himself was a candidate for president of the United States. The Mormons — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — have long regarded the U.S. Constitution as a divinely inspired document.
According to the legend, Smith predicted that someday the Constitution would be in extreme danger — hanging “like a thread as fine as silk fiber”— and that a member of the church would ride in on a white horse to save it.
“I think Mitt Romney is under the impression that he is going to be the white horse Republican who will save the country,” said Salt Lake City historian Will Bagley, a frequent critic of the church and its leaders. “Whether or not that would happen is a different matter, but I think if it came down to picking between Mitt Romney and Mike Pence, most people would go with Romney.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee for president, was only the second person in history to first be elected governor of one state and then represent another in the Senate. (Sam Houston was the other.)
Romney’s decision came only one day after a Utah poll showed that — despite the impeachment proceedings or perhaps because of them — Trump’s popularity in the state was at a new high.
The poll by the Utah Policy political site and Salt Lake City television KUTV Channel 2, reported that 46% of Utahans would vote for Trump’s reelection, compared with 41% when the last poll was taken in October. Another poll, conducted a week earlier by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and the Deseret News, a LDS-owned newspaper, showed the president’s approval rating at 53%, an all-time high.
“There are several aspects of what President Trump has done that Utahans very much approve of, such as his selection of Supreme Court nominees,” said Hinckley Institute director Jason Perry. “Utahans also care very much about the economy, about retirement and about their families. And the economy is going very well.”
The surge of Trump’s popularity in Utah may have made Romney’s decision even more difficult.
In his speech, Romney described himself as “profoundly religious” and noted that all senators had been asked to take an oath of impartiality before the impeachment trial. “My promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside,” Romney said. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
In an interview Wednesday with the Deseret News, Romney said he had agonized over his choice, calling it “the most difficult decision that I have faced.”
He told the newspaper: “I have never experienced as much sleeplessness, as much angst, and recognized the consequence for the country in a way that I have during this process.”
Perry said that Romney went into the decision with open eyes and that a good portion of the state’s solid Republican majority would be bitterly disappointed. “He knew that there would be negative ramifications, but he was not about to betray his conscience.”
Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said in a statement: “As a party, we strongly disagree with the vote cast today by Senator Romney, and stand firmly behind our President, whose policies have created an unprecedented level of American prosperity. The impeachment effort has served only to distract America from the serious issues it faces, and this November voters will hold Democrats accountable for that distraction.”
In the end, Romney said it came down to a matter of faith.
“I watched the State of the Union last night and was utterly distressed, particularly when I watched Trump give the presidential medal of honor to a man who has been so vocally racist and hateful, Rush Limbaugh,” said Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Assn. and a Trump critic. “I don’t often agree with Romney politically, but I have the utmost respect for his integrity.”
Utah social media and newspaper reader reactions reflected the same polarization that characterizes the national scene, with some of the most emotional in the Deseret News.
“He should be ashamed,” wrote one reader identified as Charlie Kirk. “This vote is about his deep personal hatred for President Trump. Mitt Romney is not a Republican.”
Another reader, Glenn Kirschner, told the newspaper: “It looks like America has one honest, fair, decent, patriotic Republican Senator.” A third reader, Joan Walsh, wrote: “I have been so critical of Mitt Romney over the years. This should NOT be heroic, but it is. And I respect it.”
In Salt Lake City — a Democratic island in a Republican state — Rebecca Larsen, a political scientist at the University of Utah, said she was surprised and thrilled by Romney’s decision. “I’m going to send him a thank-you note,” said Larsen, 56, pausing while jogging in a snowstorm in Liberty Park.
Tempest is a special correspondent.