Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced his retirement Tuesday, paving the way for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, to run for his seat.
While Romney was coy about the possibility as he thanked Hatch for his service, many Republican insiders in Utah and Washington think it is all but a done deal. Which raises the question: What if Romney never ran for office in Massachusetts and had spent his entire political career in Utah instead?
It was in his first Senate race, against Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, that Romney first tried to shore up his centrist bona fides to campaign in the bluest of states. He said he had been an independent during the Reagan-Bush years. He promised to be a stronger supporter of gay rights than Kennedy.
Most critically, Romney established himself as a supporter of legal abortion, a position that dogged him throughout his GOP presidential primary campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
In 1994, Romney told the story of a "dear, close family relative who was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion" and insisted in a televised debate “you will not see me wavering on this.” Kennedy had described Romney as not “pro-choice” but “multiple choice” because his opponent appeared to cultivate abortion opponents while seeking the Republican senatorial nomination but swung left on the issue once he made it to the general election.
“He pandered just enough to get the endorsement from the pro-life groups and now he tells me he would vote for the Freedom of Choice Act,” is how Romney’s Republican primary opponent John Lakian put it to the Boston Globe. “It is just a goddamned lie.”
Kennedy won re-election by 17 points even as Republican Gov. Bill Weld received 71 percent of the vote and went on to create the Children Health Insurance Program with Hatch, Romney’s would-be Utah predecessor.
To get a glimpse of how it could have been different, look at Romney’s abortion rhetoric when he was contemplating a run for governor — not in Massachusetts, where he had lived as a businessman, but in Utah, where he had been running the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” Romney wrote in a 2001 letter to the Salt Lake Tribune. “Abortion is the wrong choice, but under the law it is a choice people have.”
But when Romney ultimately did launch a 2002 gubernatorial bid, it was in Massachusetts. “Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose,” Romney declared. “I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate.”
Romney denied ever accepting the endorsement of Massachusetts’ largest antiabortion group during his 1994 Senate run. “When you say I accepted it, in what way did I accept it, Shannon?” he asked his Democratic opponent Shannon O’Brien in a debate.
Within three years, Romney formally changed his position, writing in a Globe op-ed, “I am prolife. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.”
Critically, he added, "I wish the people of America agreed, and that the laws of our nation could reflect that view."
If Romney had never run for office in Massachusetts and stuck to Utah politics, he would never have supported legal abortion. He may never have become known as a “flip-flopper.” And he likely would not have been responsible for Romneycare, the state healthcare law that later formed the basis of Obamacare.
All in all, Romney would have been a much cleaner conservative candidate for the Republican presidential nomination both times he ran. And perhaps this would have aided him as a “Never Trump” voice during the 2016 primaries.
On the other hand, Romney would not have been able to say he had won in a blue state, he would not have been much more likely to beat Barack Obama in 2008 if he’d won the Republican nod that year, and neither abortion flipping nor Romneycare stopped him from winning the GOP nomination in 2012.
Neither is likely to stop Romney from winning in Utah this year either. It is, however, a reminder of what might have been.