As soon as Utah senator Orrin Hatch announced he would retire this year, speculation mounted (paywall) that Mitt Romney, a longtime critic of president Donald Trump, would vie for his place.
Alongside that speculation came a now familiar force in US politics: Russian bots and trolls. Tweets from Russian accounts with the hashtag #neverromney—echoing the “Never Trump” movement to which Romney was tied during 2016 presidential election—have reportedly exploded since Hatch’s statement.
Russia-linked #neverromney tweets are up 2,500% in the last 48 hours, according to Hamilton 68, a project run by the German Marshall Fund think tank that tracks tweets “tied to Russia-linked influence networks.” Tweets about Mitt Romney, who was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, have soared by 14,400%.
Russian bots and troll factories are now notorious for backing Trump in the 2016 presidential election—Twitter deactivated 2,752 supposedly Russia-linked accounts at the end of last year. The Russian-backed rise of #neverromney seems another sign that they will continue to support his needs in the House and Senate midterms in 2018.
Generally, tweets under the #neverromney hashtag attack him for opposing Trump in the presidential election, for his loss to president Obama in the 2012 election, or for making a U-turn when it looked like Trump might offer him the secretary of State job.
After the devastating loss of a Senate seat to a Democrat in deep-red Alabama in December, Trump put heavy pressure on the 83-year-old Hatch to run for his seat again, in order to stop Romney becoming a thorn in his side in Washington. Trump came second in the Utah Republican primary to senator Ted Cruz, after Romney campaigned for Utah voters to oppose Trump.