If President Donald Trump's election marked a radical new era for the Republican Party, the 2018 midterm elections might offer something of a throwback.
Three candidates from the 2012 Republican presidential primary are now weighing Senate bids, including the eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who is expected to run to succeed Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Two Minnesota rivals, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Rep. Michele Bachmann, are both weighing jumping into the race to name Sen. Al Franken's permanent successor.
Romney won the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and now may run for senator in Utah
Two 2012 rivals: Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann may run for Senate in Minnesota
The potential returns by Romney, Pawlenty or Bachmann present a test of old political brands in a new age. Should they decide to run, their presence might be a welcome bit of nostalgia to GOP voters fatigued by Trump's presidency; but they could also provide an unwelcome flashback.
Bachmann, a former Tea Party star, would likely run a campaign more in line with Trump's branding: In a recent interview with Jim Bakker, she predicted that "the swamp" would push back against her candidacy, an allusion to Trump's anti-Washington tagline, "drain the swamp."
Bids by Romney and Pawlenty, however, would mark a comeback for a quieter, more traditional sort of Republican campaign, featuring seasoned politicians with deep, longstanding connections among major donors and the national party.
The potential 2012 redux "is a reflection of the fact that both 2012 and 2016 saw incredibly strong classes of Republican presidential candidates," said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and former Romney campaign aide.
Although Pawlenty and Romney would mark a stylistic break from Trump, Steel said, they would be "very much in line with the congressional Republicans in a lot of ways."
They would not be the first alumni of that election cycle to carve out a niche in the new political order. Trump picked Rick Perry as his Energy Secretary and sent Jon Huntsman to Moscow as the US ambassador to Russia. The President also considered naming Romney as secretary of state before settling on Rex Tillerson.
There is a question of how Romney, in particular, will fit into the Trump era in Washington, having emerged in 2016 as an outspoken critic of the then-Republican nominee and kept it up with Trump as President -- the brief dalliance for the secretary of state job aside.
That dynamic sparked a recent lobbying effort by the White House to encourage Hatch to seek another term in office. Now the President's allies are wary of Romney bringing an anti-Trump message to the campaign trail and perhaps the Senate.
Still, Utah might be uniquely positioned among Republican states to potentially elect a prominent Trump critic in the era of Trump: just 46% of Utah voters supported Trump in 2016.
"Obviously the die-hard Trump folks aren't huge fans" of Romney, said Boyd Matheson, former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. "But I think those who are avid Trump supporters also admire the fact that Mitt Romney is the only guy other than Mike Lee who has never flinched in terms of those core issues."
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