The Return of Romney

He has become the most effective Republican surrogate for the midterms, going 6-0 in contested primaries.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally at Landmark Aviation on November 5, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 27, 2014, 6:46 p.m.

Look­ing for an­oth­er sign that the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment is hold­ing the up­per hand in con­tested GOP primar­ies? Mitt Rom­ney has been the most ef­fect­ive Re­pub­lic­an sur­rog­ate on the cam­paign trail this year.

Just re­view the res­ults: In races where he’s en­dorsed 2014 can­did­ates fa­cing com­pet­it­ive primary chal­lenges, he’s un­defeated so far. He was the star of a U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce ad en­dors­ing Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho that aired in mid-April, around the same time the con­gress­man pulled away from his tea-party-backed chal­lenger Bry­an Smith. He backed pe­di­at­ric neurosur­geon Mon­ica We­hby in the Ore­gon Sen­ate race, giv­ing the polit­ic­al out­sider a de­gree of es­tab­lish­ment cred­ib­il­ity. And he was one of the first Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials to jump on the Joni Ernst band­wag­on in Iowa, en­dors­ing the up­start Sen­ate can­did­ate when she was still lag­ging in the polls. (He’s head­lining two events for Ernst on Fri­day in Ce­dar Rap­ids and Dav­en­port, his first cam­paign ral­lies of the cycle.)

While many politi­cians en­dorse can­did­ates who are safe bets to win primar­ies, the nor­mally risk-averse Rom­ney has eagerly put his repu­ta­tion on the line, back­ing can­did­ates in next month’s primar­ies who face chal­len­ging odds. In Cali­for­nia, Neel Kashkari is vy­ing to fin­ish ahead of tea-party can­did­ate Tim Don­nelly in the gov­ernor’s race, while Rom­ney-en­dorsed Nevada state Sen. Mark Hutchis­on is hop­ing to de­feat former Sen­ate can­did­ate Sue Lowden in the state’s lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor’s primary. In Col­or­ado, he weighed in on be­half of former Rep. Bob Beau­prez, run­ning in a com­pet­it­ive gubernat­ori­al primary. And Rom­ney just an­nounced sup­port for former Paul Ry­an aide Elise Stefanik, fa­cing well-fun­ded op­pos­i­tion run­ning for a New York con­gres­sion­al seat from GOP busi­ness­man Matt Do­heny.

“He’s not afraid to make a choice. He sees a can­did­ate who he thinks will be good and have a shot at win­ning, he’s go­ing to get in­volved,” said Tom Rath, a long­time Rom­ney ad­viser who re­mains in touch with the former pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. “He’s a very smart guy. He un­der­stands the pro­cess now, and sees the dif­fer­ence out­side val­id­a­tion can make if it’s done the right away and it’s done early enough.”

The nor­mally risk-averse Rom­ney has eagerly put his repu­ta­tion on the line, back­ing can­did­ates who face chal­len­ging odds.

To be sure, Rom­ney’s ef­fect­ive­ness stems more from the GOP es­tab­lish­ment’s grow­ing suc­cess over grass­roots con­ser­vat­ives, more than his own in­di­vidu­al in­flu­ence. His favored can­did­ates in­clude many long­time al­lies, in­clud­ing Vir­gin­ia Sen­ate can­did­ate Ed Gillespie, Rom­ney’s 2012 seni­or ad­viser; Vir­gin­ia state Del. Bar­bara Com­stock, a Rom­ney staffer in 2008; Cali­for­nia state Sen. Tony Strick­land, a former Rom­ney Cali­for­nia state chair­man run­ning for Con­gress; and Stefanik. But they also con­tain some up-and-com­ing pro­spects, like Ernst and We­hby, along with lead­ing Sen­ate chal­lengers like former Sen. Scott Brown in New Hamp­shire, Rep. Bill Cas­sidy in Louisi­ana, and Rep. Steve Daines in Montana.

Rom­ney’s suc­cess­ful post­pres­id­en­tial cam­paign in­volve­ment is a re­mind­er that for all the tea-party in­flu­ence with­in the GOP, there’s a “Rom­ney wing” of the party that’s alive and well even past the can­did­ate’s sell-by date. The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dan Balz wrote a thought-pro­vok­ing column in March, ar­guing that “some­what con­ser­vat­ive” voters make up the largest fac­tion with­in the party. “These voters like can­did­ates with gov­ern­ing ex­per­i­ence who have con­ser­vat­ive val­ues but do not push rad­ic­al policies and are op­tim­ist­ic about the coun­try. They re­ject cul­ture war­ri­ors,” Balz wrote. It’s a good de­scrip­tion of the can­did­ates Rom­ney has backed this elec­tion year.

In­deed, the lineup of Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates in 2014 re­flects a de­gree of coun­try-club Re­pub­lic­an­ism, based on their bio­graph­ies, if not their ideo­logy. Three of the party’s nom­in­ees have, like Rom­ney, ca­reer ex­per­i­ence with blue-chip con­sult­ing firms. In North Car­o­lina, Thom Tillis served as a part­ner at Price­Wa­ter­house­Coopers be­fore pur­su­ing a polit­ic­al ca­reer, first run­ning for of­fice to get a moun­tain-bike path built in his ho­met­own. Con­ser­vat­ive fa­vor­ites Ben Sas­se and Tom Cot­ton spent stints at McKin­sey & Com­pany, em­ploy­ing Rom­ney-like ca­reer tracks be­fore jump­ing in­to polit­ics.

Rom­ney him­self will be at­tend­ing a Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee fun­draiser on June 9 in New York, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. And later in the month, he’s host­ing a re­treat on the fu­ture of Amer­ic­an lead­er­ship at his man­sion in Park City, Utah, in­vit­ing lead­ing pro­spect­ive con­tenders in 2016 to at­tend.

“Mitt’s the closest thing we have to a party eld­er right now, someone who’s been through the fire. His stature is pres­id­en­tial, and I think people miss that,” said Rath. “He lost an elec­tion, but he didn’t lose in­terest. He really does have con­cern about the dir­ec­tion the coun­try’s headed.”

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