Among the many reasons former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had to smile on election night 2014 was the ascension of Charlie Baker to Romney’s former office. Those most interested in another Romney run will want to model Baker’s path from defeat to renomination to victory.
Romney attended Baker’s victory party and lent a hand to the Baker camp though he wasn’t an active surrogate for Baker.
He didn’t have time. The former Governor found himself in demand all over the country from New Hampshire to Alaska as he threw himself into party affairs, both working on behalf of an impressive slate of candidates and keeping speculation alive about his future intentions.
Just as Deval Patrick’s win in 2006 and reelection in 2010 offered a model that Barack Obama copied perfectly, Charlie Baker’s path from defeat to victory may be the blueprint for Mitt Romney.
Baker ran as someone not entirely himself in 2010. Voters turned him aside. He then threw himself into party affairs with energy and enjoyment and clawed his way back to victory. The man, who former colleagues have called “the smartest guy in Massachusetts government,” ran as much more of a happy warrior and better manager in 2014. He embraced himself and ran a smarter campaign. Victory didn't come easy but still it came.
There’s a model there for Romney who has, since 2012, defied historical norms. That’s my takeaway from the recent polling results put forward by Pat Griffin and Jim Demers of Purple Strategies at a breakfast event hosted by the New England Council this past week. Bottom line: Romney is the clear favorite among Republicans, particularly in New Hampshire, for the 2016 nomination. Thirty percent of NH Republicans would choose Romney in the primary. His nearest competitor is Rand Paul at 11%.
It is hard to find a parallel for a figure in American presidential politics who has gone from general election loser to a favored status in his own party and beyond.
Since the advent of modern presidential politics in 1968, only Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern attempted a return to presidential politics and neither got very far.
Very few defeated general election candidates have retained a national and largely positive political following just two years after a defeat. And Romney was not just inserting himself into races, he was invited to come in, something we expect from party elders but not something we typically see in a recently defeated presidential candidate.
Like Charlie Baker, the goodwill that Romney retained after his defeat two years ago will be furthered enhanced by the success of the many campaigns he endorsed this year and the evident personal loyalty he engenders.
But the path is much steeper for Romney nationally that it was for Baker in a state that is quite open to moderate GOP gubernatorial nominees.
The last time a political party nominated the same person just four years after a general election defeat was in 1956 when the Democrats renominated Adlai Stevenson.
Since then only Richard Nixon has gone from a general election defeat in 1960 to being renominated in 1968.
The thinking now is that with a wide open Republican primary that features a few new leading conservative lights such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker plus a few single digit conservatives such as Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, we’ll have a free for all. There may be other strong candidates who haven't reached national attention such as Mike Pence or John Kasich.
Will the party look for someone of stature to pull it all together? If so, that task may fall to Mitt Romney. Or perhaps Jeb Bush, should the former Florida Governor jump into the race.
I tend to discount Chris Christie’s chances. The bullying tactics of a politician can play well if you’ve actually saved a state from death’s door. But New Jersey remains a state of downgraded credit, high taxes, high debt, and high unemployment. What’s left is the bombast who barks at critics but has little success to show for it?
But I digress.
Of course, the quickest way for the aura around Romney to fade is to launch an third campaign. Knives will come out. And if Bush runs, the folks whose money and organization would flow almost naturally to Romney are likely to move to the Floridian’s side.
A Bush run very likely muddies Romney’s path. And that’s the biggest difference between Romney and Baker. In Massachusetts, the Republican party had very little to offer this year for its gubernatorial nomination. The party here would have been bereft of statewide leadership had Baker not run.
But the national party has plenty of talent to choose from and Romney will not be able to clear the field. The risk to his historical reputation by running and losing the nomination will be great. It’s not hard to go from hero to pariah in modern politics.
Still, given his numbers, a Romney attempt at a third pass is not inconceivable. Baker has laid down a path from defeat to renomination to victory.
But even if he sits out the next race, he'll have emerged from 2014 popular and sought after. It took Nixon eight years to get tanned, rested, and ready. Romney did it in two.
That by itself, without a third run, makes Romney a unique and historic figure.