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Sens. Mitt Romney And Mike Lee Divided On Trump's Hold Over The GOP

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Utah now, where the divisions in the GOP over former President Trump are exemplified by the state's two Republican senators. Mitt Romney was the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump during last year's impeachment trial, and he appears open to doing it again. The state's other senator, Mike Lee, has been a loyal ally to the former president. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Sonja Hutson checked in with voters to see how they're feeling about this impeachment.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: In the lead-up to the trial, both Romney and Lee have not been shy about sharing their opinions. Here's Romney on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: What is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offense. If not, what is?

HUTSON: While Romney says it's clear that the trial is constitutional, earlier this week, Lee argued the opposite on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE LEE: The constitutional text itself is ambiguous. I think it should be read in an abundance of caution to make sure that it's not abused for partisan political purposes in future Congresses.

HUTSON: This split between the two senators mirrors splits within Utah's Republican Party and around the country. The former president has always been controversial in Utah. In the past two elections, Trump performed far worse than Republican presidential candidates typically do here.

Shelly Cluff is a Romney Republican. She's 34 and lives in a conservative suburb outside of Salt Lake City. Cluff says, after watching him vote to convict Trump last year...

SHELLY CLUFF: I definitely came away with more respect for him. I didn't have a strong feeling yay or nay on impeachment, but I was pleased to see Romney do that. I believe that he took a vote of conscience.

HUTSON: This time around, Cluff says she hopes Romney can bring other Republicans along with him.

CLUFF: Maybe they just saw that, like, he lived to tell the tale and therefore it's OK to vote like that.

HUTSON: As for Lee, Cluff says she started off really liking him when he took office 10 years ago, but she's not planning to vote for him when he's up for reelection next year.

CLUFF: I've really been disappointed at how frequently he adheres himself to Trump.

HUTSON: But it's that backing for Trump that Tom Hendry likes about Lee.

TOM HENDRY: I voted for Mike Lee for how he supported our president. And he also works under the Constitution. It's these that are flip-flopping all around the Constitution that I can't stand.

HUTSON: Hendry, who's 60, says Romney supports impeachment to boost his own profile and goes against the wishes of voters in heavily Republican Utah.

HENDRY: His thoughts was only for his glorification and not for the people of Utah.

HUTSON: Still, Romney remains relatively popular here despite that vote. Romney defended his decision, saying he made a promise before God to apply impartial justice at the trial. That plays well here. Utah is a very religious place. Sixty percent of the population, including Romney, are Mormon.

Romney supporters like Shelly Cluff say they appreciate how he used his faith to guide him. But critics like 74-year-old Maribeth Merton say he used religion as a shield for a selfish vote. Merton says Romney's words during this impeachment are even more insulting to their shared religion.

MARIBETH MERTON: Most of us believe, at least in the Bible, where it says we don't judge. His statement is, what we saw automatically indicates the president did initiate an insurrection. This is what he said before any evidence has been presented. So he's already judged it.

HUTSON: One judge Mitt Romney won't face very soon is that of the voters. He isn't up for reelection until 2024.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.