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Mitt Romney: Can the insider play the insurgent in Senate race?

Author: David M. Drucker, Washington Examiner - May 11, 2018 - Updated: May 31, 2018

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Mitt Romney at a breakfast campaign stop in Green River, Utah, on March 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Mitt Romney threatening to shut down the government is probably not what Republicans in Washington were expecting from one of the leading establishment figures of their party over the past two decades.

The 71-year-old, former presidential nominee is vowing to do whatever it takes to end profligate federal spending and the trillions in debt required to finance it, as he campaigns across Utah for an open U.S. Senate seat.

If blocking another $1.3 trillion omnibus budget isn’t mission impossible enough, Romney wants to pick up the pieces of last year’s embarrassing collapse of Republican’s efforts to repeal Obamacare.

Such lofty declarations, on issues that have bedeviled the Republican Party, have elicited glaring eye-rolls from skeptics Left, Right and center. Romney, as the governor of Massachusetts, worked with a Democratic legislature to craft the forerunner to Obamacare, earning a reputation for compromising pragmatism. But the presumptive successor to retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is unbowed.

Romney is assuring voters that he’s too old, with too little to lose, at this unique stage of a long professional career that has spanned lucrative years as a venture capitalist that made him fabulously wealthy, to the near-pinnacle of American politics, to arrive on Capitol Hill if elected and suddenly fear the consequences of bucking President Donald Trump or Republican leaders in Congress.

“I’m not in this race because I have some political career I’m trying to foster. My political career is over,” Romney said recently, in an exchange with voters as he campaigned near Salt Lake City. “A lot of people go back and make politics their career and they want to get as many goodies as they possibly can get. I got all the goodies I possibly want.”

Romney’s claimed contempt for career politicians, and promises not to fall prey to the typical Washington establishment, borrows from a well-worn playbook for Republican congressional candidates. But in a twist, Romney is pledging to lead something of an insider’s revolt, and succeed where the conservative insurgents have so far failed.

Most Republicans running for office brag about what little they know of Washington and how few friends they have there. Romney is proudly telling anyone who will listen to just how connected he is on Capitol Hill, detailing plans to leverage relationships cultivated over two presidential campaigns to force fiscal responsibility on the Republican Party and finally undo President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Despite Romney’s ties to a neighbor state, Obama beat him in Colorado in the 2012 race by almost 5-1/2 percentage points. The candidates faced off in the first of their presidential-campaign debates at the University of Denver that year.

Romney has nurtured his ties to Republicans in D.C. through prodigious fundraising for party organizations and candidates.

That effort that has continued into this election cycle with Romney placing telephone calls to major donors on behalf of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super-PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, his vice presidential running mate in 2012, to raise money to defend the GOP’s vulnerable House majority.

“I’ve actually campaigned for Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and raised money for him,” Romney said of the Senate majority leader, perhaps the most despised Republican in Washington among the grassroots, in a conversation with one voter.

“I’ve campaigned with some 40 different Republican senators. I’ve campaigned for them — with them. I could get a group of them together to stand together to fight against the excessive spending that we’re seeing in Washington. I could also get Obamacare repealed,” he added. “Look, every Republican in the country is against Obamacare in their campaigns; no one can get it done.”

Romney isn’t projected to encounter too many storm clouds on his road to the Senate. He came up short to Mike Kennedy, a state legislator, in a preference vote of more than 3,300 grassroots delegates to the Utah Republican Party convention in April, but should defeat him easily when they meet again in the regular June primary. The general election in this red state west of Colorado is a mere formality.

Any other contest with one candidate a virtual lock, would hardly register a blip on the national radar. This is different.

Romney is a nationally recognized leader who has sparred with Trump, aggressively and in public, on occasion. And the perch of a U.S. Senate seat, where even unknown backbenchers can make news, is tailor-made for a politician who wants to carve a base of opposition to a president. In Washington, some Republicans will push Romney in that direction.

Unlike others of his party in Congress who have to look over their shoulder at an activist base that adores Trump, Romney would have substantial support at home if he moved against the president. Utah Republicans, though rather conservative, have never quite acclimated themselves to Trump’s provocative rhetoric and at-times offensive personal behavior.

“They don’t want somebody to just fan-boy and just jump on” the bandwagon, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, told the Washington Examiner.

His assessment was confirmed in several interviews with GOP voters.

“I would like it if someone would take (Trump’s) Twitter account away, because every time he gets on Twitter he sounds juvenile and he hurts his cause far more than anything that he does off of Twitter,” said Nancy Merrill, 51.

Added Susan Fisher, 69: “Mitt Romney wouldn’t be intimidated to speak to the president, and to speak up and say his mind if he thought something wasn’t right. Maybe he needs that.”

In March 2016, in the heat of a then-undecided GOP presidential primary, Romney delivered a speech urging Republicans to support other GOP candidates, warning that Trump was a “fraud” and a liar. Romney said he wouldn’t have accepted Trump’s endorsement for president in 2012 had the real estate mogul and reality television star said then what he was saying in 2016 about Mexicans and Muslims.

Last year, after Trump tempered his criticism of the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, Romney again rebuked Trump, saying in part: “What he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep and the vast heart of America to mourn. His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard.”

That was then; this is now.

Romney is expressing little interest in being the voice of the Republican diaspora or organizing a campaign to take the party it back. Trump interviewed Romney during the transition for the secretary of state post and this year endorsed his Senate bid. Romney is returning the favor, working overtime to highlight his positive relationship with the president and bat down rumors that he’s headed to Washington to take up arms against him.

“I think he’ll surprise people by voicing support for the president,” said Mike Leavitt, the Republican former governor of Utah who is advising Romney as he campaigns for Senate.

Indeed, in conversations with voters who visited his booth at the Utah GOP convention, Romney crowed about a personal relationship with Trump that goes back decades, before either were politicians. Romney paid Trump perhaps the ultimate compliment when he said that the president’s achievements are similar to what he would have done had he won the White House six years ago.

“His first year is very similar to things I’d have done my first year,” Romney said in response to one of the many questions he received regarding how he plans to work with Trump given their complicated history. “The things he’s actually done have been better than I expected.”

Romney isn’t the first Republican to be tied in knots discussing his support for the president.

In one exchange, he added a verbal inflection on the word “doing” as he attempted to distinguish between Trump’s rhetoric and his actions, and explain how he reconciles his opposition to the troubling things he says (and tweets) with what has turned out to be a pretty traditional GOP governing agenda that any of his opponents in the 2016 presidential primary would have pursued.

“If he says something which I believe is racist or divisive and serious, then I’ll point out that I disagree with that,” Romney told one voter. “But I’m an honest enough person that if he does something right — and by the way he’s done a number of things right — I’ll be fully supportive of those things. I will support the president’s agenda when it’s good for Utah, and good for the country, and so far that’s been the case.”

Romney is a favorite son in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered and dominates local society.

His familial roots have always run deep there despite his making a name for himself in Massachusetts, and he is beloved for becoming the first Mormon to lead a national ticket and leaving his venture capital firm to run the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, saving the quadrennial sporting event from mismanagement and disorganization.

It shows on the trail. Romney the politician in Utah is a different candidate from his previous campaigns — his first run for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 against the late Democratic icon, Sen. Ted Kennedy, to his successful gubernatorial bid there in 2002, to his struggles to win the White House in 2008 and 2012.

That Romney was always trying to fit in, either as a Republican centrist enough for liberal Massachusetts; or as a Republican stalwart enough for conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. This Romney, though still socially awkward at times, is at ease, comfortable with where he stands, confident rather than defensive.

Romney declined to be interviewed for this story.

But those who have spent years in his inner circle concede that the Romney Utah voters are getting a glimpse of in this Senate campaign is the leader that motivated them to stick with him so loyally over many years he was the object of ridicule in other quarters of the Republican Party.

“I don’t necessarily see the inauthentic part,” said his son, Josh Romney, responding to one of the most consistent raps on his father. “But I will say, just in terms of what he’s doing here, I really think he does feel at home in Utah … He, obviously, wasn’t president, but it’s like he really doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove.”

A politician who has sought public office in some fashion or another for the past 25 years is going to have a hard time convincing people inside and outside of Washington that this latest campaign, in a new state, is a simple act of selfless service. That’s not lost on Romney, who is keenly aware of how he is perceived, say confidants.

But political operatives and business associates close to Romney insist that the call to public service is the best way to understand him. The ethos was instilled in him by his father, George Romney, a Republican who served as governor of Michigan, where Romney was raised, and ran for president.

Romney is “brilliant” in his ability to analyze complicated problems and formulate solutions and “sophisticated” in his understanding of politics, those in his orbit say. Yet he is not a complicated person, with simple tastes that can seem out of place with a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“My favorite meat is hot dog, by the way. That is my favorite meat,” he told a gathering of supporters as they joined him recently for a casual dinner organized by his campaign. “My second favorite meat is hamburger. And, everyone says, oh, don’t you prefer steak? It’s like, I know steaks are great, but I like hot dog best, and I like hamburger next best.”

Romney doesn’t lack the ambition that drove him to run for president twice. But understanding what motivates him now, and how he views his role in the national discourse in this late chapter of his life and political career, reveals how he might channel that ambition in Washington.

Whatever ideological flexibility Romney displayed over the years, leading to charges of expedient flip-flopping, he was steadfast on the issue of runaway government spending and the danger the massive federal debt posed to the nation’s fiscal health. His commitment to tackle the problem led him to tap Ryan, the architect of the GOP’s since-discarded agenda to reform entitlement programs, as his running mate.

Romney is frustrated that a Republican majority in Congress and a Republican president are ignoring what he believes is a crisis. Leading a coalition of like-minded Republicans to force a reckoning on fiscal matters, rather than looking to build some foundation for a quixotic 2020 challenge of Trump, is how Romney is most likely to exhibit evidence of his obviously still smoldering ambition.

“It’s a mistake to think he’s running to stand up to Trump,” a veteran Romney adviser said.

That’s why he is developing a relationship with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the originator of the Tea Party’s ultimately failed strategy in 2013 to trade votes for government funding for legislation to essentially repeal Obamacare.

Romney regularly criticizes the bipartisan, $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package negotiated by Ryan, McConnell and Trump, sounding very much like Lee might as he lamented to one voter that Republican leaders always relinquish their power to force spending reductions by their rush to guarantee no government shutdown on their watch. “When you play poker, you have to follow through with your bluff,” he said.

Romney is still a pragmatist. A Tea Party agitator he clearly is not. Expect him to play ball with party leadership, and bipartisan majorities, on legislation.

But on the issues he is running for the Senate to address — spending and health care — expect him to operate independently and use his unique stature to coalesce a rebellion against business as usual on spending, even through extraordinary measures like shutting down the government.

Republicans in Utah certainly believe he will. Republicans who have worked closely with Romney over the years warn that the skeptics should, too.

“He will be willing to take on issues that have to be addressed but never get addressed because of the challenges of working in Washington,” said Fraser Bullock, a Utah businessman who worked with Romney on the 2002 Olympics. “Will he be an insurgent? To some degree, yes, to try and get Washington to address this critical issue.”

David M. Drucker, Washington Examiner