Sen. Mitt Romney, with a single vote, became the darling of the political left who once despised him and the scourge of his conservative brethren who just eight years ago made him the Republican standard-bearer.
He became the first senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own party with Wednesday’s impeachment vote, sparking moves in Utah to recall him and a demand from President Trump’s son for the Senate GOP to expel him from their caucus.
Senate leaders said that’s not going to happen, but Mr. Romney’s vote left most of his party wondering what he’s trying to accomplish.
“He will now go down in history — which is what Mitt Romney always wanted to be remembered in is history — as the only U.S. senator to ever vote for impeachment for a member of his own party,” said Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager. “It is about what is politically expedient for him.”
Anyone who had watched Mr. Romney in recent months might have seen this coming. He became the most vocal Republican critic of Mr. Trump in September, saying he was troubled by the phone call with Ukraine’s president that became the basis for the Democrats’ impeachment case.
Just hours before the impeachment vote, Mr. Romney was perhaps the only Republican lukewarm on Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address the night before.
Instead of praising the president, Mr. Romney released a statement crediting his state governor for the strong economy, while warning he would challenge Mr. Trump on “runaway debt.”
Standing on the Senate floor Wednesday, Mr. Romney said he had to vote to convict the president on the count of abuse of power based on his faith and his oath to God. He would vote to acquit Mr. Trump on the second charge of obstruction of Congress.
“What he did was not perfect,” Mr. Romney said, disagreeing with Mr. Trump’s description of his own behavior. “No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security, and our fundamental values.”
The senator’s spokeswoman, Liz Johnson, said the vote “was a vote of conscience and personal conviction.”
Mr. Romney, elected to the Senate in 2018 with Mr. Trump’s backing, had been quiet for the first months of his term, backing key priorities such as the president’s judicial picks.
He did vote against the president’s budget deal and his move to shift money to his border wall. But his real break came in September when he complained about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Last week he was one of two Republicans — the other was Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine — to join Democrats in a failed bid to interview witnesses and extend the Senate trial of Mr. Trump.
Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, said the left will use Mr. Romney’s vote for impeachment to harm vulnerable Republican senators who are up for reelection this year.
“He didn’t do any favors for Republicans who actually stood firm and rejected a failed case,” Mr. Manning said.
Mr. Romney isn’t up for reelection until 2024, and his vote sparked speculation that the 72-year-old won’t run again.
Ryan Rhodes, a Republican campaign strategist, said it’s hard to say if he will suffer four years from now for his vote.
“I suspect somebody will potentially challenge him, but I think it’s far too early to tell because often Republican voters have very short memories of these very people that have sold us out,” Mr. Rhodes said, referencing pro-life and religious liberty issues.
In Utah, some don’t want Mr. Romney to finish out this term.
State Rep. Tim Quinn earlier this year had introduced a bill to allow Utah to recall members of Congress. After Mr. Romney’s vote, calls and emails of support flooded his office.
“Regardless of how you feel about the bill, regardless about how you feel about either one of our senators, I recognize this is a tough bill to be asked to vote on,” Mr. Quinn said, but wouldn’t specifically say if Mr. Romney should be recalled, according to the Deseret News.
A 1995 Supreme Court case likely rules out the possibility of recalling a senator.
Mr. Romney was in Salt Lake City to meet with Republican legislative leaders on Thursday. When asked about his vote, Mr. Romney told local reporters he does not have a plan to deal with any blowback.
“I don’t know what might happen in the Utah Legislature,” Mr. Romney said, according to the Deseret News. “I will accept whatever consequence is sent my way and recognize that is part of the job. People don’t expect me to be a shrinking violet.”
Some analysts think Mr. Romney is trying to fill the role of the late Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008, actually defeating Mr. Romney and others for the nomination that year.
McCain was known as the “Maverick” for his willingness to join Democrats and thwart GOP leaders’ plans. His most well-known vote may have come in 2017 when he scuttled the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. But Mr. Lewandowski rejected the comparison.
“He is not the new John McCain because John McCain had a set of principles that he didn’t deviate from, and while whether you agreed with John McCain or not, he had a core group of principles he held steadfast to. That is not the case for Mitt Romney,” Mr. Lewandowski said.
Democrats hailed Mr. Romney as a hero for his vote.
“God bless him for his courage,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
GOP senators speculated that Mr. Romney’s vote paved the way for Democrats who were on the fence to vote to convict Mr. Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz, speaking on his podcast “Verdict,” said once Mr. Romney defected, Democrats had to enforce unity among their members so they could tout the bipartisan vote for conviction.
It wasn’t just Democrats who praised Mr. Romney.
Evan McMullin, a one-time Republican who tried to run against Mr. Trump as an independent in the 2016 presidential race, took to Twitter to back the senator.
“Thank you, @SenatorRomney, for your courage and patriotism! Thank you for upholding your oath and defending the Constitution. A grateful majority is with you as will be the judgment of time,” tweeted Mr. McMullin.