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Focus on politics: Could Romney KO Trump in 'Year of the Feud'?

| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
In this June 8, 2012, file photo, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, then a Republican presidential candidate, walks alongside U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the tarmac of Salt Lake City International Airport. Romney, 70, is considering a new career in Congress. Those who know him best expect him to announce plans to seek the Utah Senate seat that Hatch will vacate by not seeking re-election this fall. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley, File)
In this June 8, 2012, file photo, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, then a Republican presidential candidate, walks alongside U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the tarmac of Salt Lake City International Airport. Romney, 70, is considering a new career in Congress. Those who know him best expect him to announce plans to seek the Utah Senate seat that Hatch will vacate by not seeking re-election this fall. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley, File)

WASHINGTON

This could be the Year of the Feud. With Orrin Hatch poised to end his 40 years in the Senate, Mitt Romney may not only be Utah's choice to fill the seat, but a salvation for the Republican Party mainstream as it was before Donald Trump. The former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee could become a force in the next run for the White House.

There is no love lost between Trump and Romney — and now, between Trump and his former chief political mastermind, Steve Bannon, who was quoted in Michael Wolff's new book as highly critical of Trump's family. Trump responded harshly, making it clear he has no use for Bannon and disavowing his importance to Trump's presidential victory.

Romney has also been highly critical of Trump, calling him unfit for the office during the campaign. Trump called Romney a loser who blew his own presidential race by choking.

Whether Romney would want to launch a primary fight with Trump from the Senate would probably depend on his ability to not appear petulant when he disagrees with Trump's agenda.

Unseating your own party's incumbent president is delicate and difficult, even when your target is not terribly popular — as Sen. Edward Kennedy found out in his effort to oust Jimmy Carter, a factor in Carter's ultimate defeat by Ronald Reagan.

But Trump is an entirely different chief executive, violating plenty of political tenets and supported by a dwindling but still effective base, forcing the traditional Republican leadership to constantly look over its shoulders.

Red-state Utah's dislike of Trump could be seen as a factor in Hatch's decision to retire at year's end. After Hatch lent major support to Trump's controversial tax bill and issued an over-the-top endorsement of the president, one survey showed 75 percent of Utah's voters opposed Hatch running again, despite Trump's pleas for him to stay in office.

All of this probably will make Trump's efforts on his domestic agenda, foreign policy and keeping the GOP's congressional majority more difficult during his second year in office than during his first. The party in the White House usually loses legislative seats at midterm, and with Democrats highly probable to retake the Senate, Trump's situation could become catastrophic.

That would leave him fuming in his morning tweets. His campaigning might be limited by Republican candidates who see him as a low-approval liability. Much of his campaigning would have to be in the South, where the GOP has near one-party status, or in a few parts of the Rust Belt he carried in 2016.

Romney's role could be crucial. His image as a moderate conservative leader and former, still viable presidential nominee gives him an air of authority Republicans currently don't have. His views and exposure set him apart from hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Also, Romney has unique cachet in Utah as the 2002 Winter Olympics' savior after a major scandal. And this time around, his Mormonism is not expected to be the detriment it seemed when he was the first Mormon to win the nomination. His influence on the GOP could be considerable, whether challenging Trump or not.

Trump's peril in the Year of the Feud is considerable, and it's just beginning.

Dan K. Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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