After an often embarrassing yearlong struggle to overcome a weak field in the GOP primary, Mitt Romney is surging in the polls and raising money at a healthy clip. This comes as no surprise to the Democrats who’ve gone up against him in Massachusetts.
Romney may have reinvented himself as a movement conservative in his two presidential runs, but those on the Democratic side in his two statewide campaigns tell TPM they see plenty familiar in his style. And they’re warning Democrats who are less than dazzled by his primary performance not to underestimate him.
“Mitt Romney has been running for high public office since 1994 and in every campaign he’s been in he’s gotten better and more disciplined,” Shannon O’Brien, the Democratic nominee for governor Romney defeated in 2002, told TPM. “He has become a very good politician, perhaps one of the most crafty and ruthless politicians in the country today, and it could well propel him to the presidency.”
Romney’s past campaigns are particularly relevant given that the Obama campaign is covering some of the same ground today, most notably Romney’s history with Bain Capital. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who won his toughest re-election over Romney in 1994, used Bain as a top issue in the final weeks of the race, highlighting workers who had been laid off at companies acquired by the private equity firm in a similar manner to Obama’s ads today.
Romney lost that race despite a national Republican wave. Bob Shrum, a longtime aide to Kennedy, recalled that Romney’s biggest weakness then was his inability to react quickly to tough hits like the Bain layoffs — a trait he says could still prove his undoing.
“I thought he was much as he was in the primaries this year: He did well until he took a punch,” Shrum said. “Basically we were off TV from middle of summer to the middle of September and ended up in a tie in the polls. But we then went after him on television and suddenly he was 12-14 points behind.”
Still, Shrum sees strengths in Romney, whom he warns could be an even tougher opponent for Obama if the economy struggles.
“He’s smart, and it matters when he gets to the debate with the president,” Shrum said. “Romney will know the numbers, he’ll be able to debate the numbers. While he’s not great at dealing with the unexpected, I think he may be underestimated in terms of his capacity to debate the substance of these issues.”
Not surprisingly, those who tangled with Romney in his winning 2002 gubernatorial race were significantly more impressed by his viability as a candidate. Democrats involved in the race all recalled the challenge of combating Romney’s money, his smoothly run organization and his ability to go sharply negative in creative ways.
“He was a very tough candidate,” Phillip Johnston, who chaired the state Democratic Party at the time, told TPM. “Fundamentally, it’s a Catholic state with a preponderance of Irish and Italian voters, and we had Shannon O’Brien and [Lt. Gov. nominee] Chris Gabrieli running against a Mormon. You’d say, ‘How could you lose?’ Well, we did.”
O’Brien recalled being overwhelmed by a combination of strong personal resources — Romney donated $2 million to his campaign in one day — impressive branding as a moderate outsider and highly effective attacks on her own independent image.
“I think that he had learned a great deal as a candidate having run in 1994 against Ted Kennedy,” she said. “The thing that he learned I think most clearly and deeply was to go negative early and often. He actually started running negative ads against me personally before I was even the Democratic nominee for governor. I think you’ve seen that pattern throughout the course of this presidential race.”
There are echoes of Romney’s strategy against O’Brien in the campaign today, which perhaps explains some of the more surprising choices Romney has made in his messaging against Obama. For example, Romney has made a big show throughout the campaign of attacking Obama as a corrupt politician, calling him out for “crony capitalism” and alleging the president uses the government to direct federal cash to Democratic donors. Obama as thieving pol is a theme that’s rarely gained much traction outside of hardcore conservative circles, and similar attacks fell flat in 2008 and throughout his relatively scandal-free presidency. But it’s not hard to see why Romney thinks it has such power — it worked great the last time.
In 2002, Romney went after O’Brien’s husband, who had worked as a lobbyist, saying in TV ads and campaign speeches that his work for clients like Enron conflicted with his wife’s work as state treasurer. Ads suggested she had bought shares in the energy company in the state’s pension fund to benefit her husband’s client, despite the fund being managed by prominent investor Bill Miller.
“I think it is absolutely clear that it is wrong for the treasurer of the commonwealth to have her husband working as a lobbyist at the same time,” Romney said at one event. “It may not be illegal, but it is wrong.”
O’Brien, who was running as a truth-teller unafraid to take on any interest in overseeing the state’s finances, credited the attacks on her ethics with helping sway a close election. But she said the most devastating ones portrayed her as a party hack, accusing her of doing the bidding of the “Gang of Three,” a trio of influential Democratic leaders in the state.
“They made it appear I was part of the old boy network and I think that it undercut some of the independent fiscal watchdog reputation I had,” she said. “That was probably the toughest line of attack — and it was effective.”
Dwight Robson, O’Brien’s campaign manager, recalls Romney’s final advertising blitz with a mix of horror and admiration a decade later, saying he was particularly impressed with the professionalism of Romney’s team.
“In that last week they had a great closing message in terms of the Gang of Three. Their ads were very tough and there were a lot of them,” he said. “I think you got to, as an operative, at least give them points for one, ultimately settling on a plan that worked, and two, executing it well.”
Johnston also cited Romney’s skills in going after O’Brien’s husband, noting that it’s often more difficult for male politicians to run attack ads against female candidates without generating a backlash.
“I say this to my friends on the Obama team: Don’t underestimate Mitt’s instinct for the jugular,” he said. “He has it. He won’t hesitate to use it.”
In another cautionary sign for Obama, Romney proved more adept at deflecting attacks on Bain Capital the second time time around, muddying the waters on layoffs by pointing out that O’Brien’s running mate had invested in Bain himself . Again there are echoes of his 2002 tactics in today’s race: Romney has argued recently that Obama is no better than he is on layoffs because the auto bailout closed a number of car dealerships.
But as Kennedy and the 2008 primary prove, Romney is not invincible. Massachusetts Democrats mostly cited as weaknesses issues they observed in the past that have come up in 2012 — he has trouble connecting with voters on the trail and his meticulous planning and discipline can become a liability when a good attack throws him into uncharted territory.
Robson noted that one of Romney’s biggest gaffes in 2002 came after he was accused in a debate of deliberately misleading on his abortion position (which, back then, was pro-choice), prompting him to call O’Brien “unbecoming,” a term Democrats claimed was demeaning to women.
In 2012, Romney has become incensed by accusations of flip-flopping as well, famously getting into a prickly exchange with FOX reporter Bret Baier over his position on mandates.
“The idea of challenging Gov. Romney’s integrity, it’s really not something he appreciates,” Robson said. “There’s a lot of politicians who ‘flip-flopped,’ but they’re never going to say, ‘Hey look, I don’t have integrity,’ they’re going to say that their positions or views have evolved as they’ve learned more. With him, the very idea that he somehow is elastic — which is obvious to everyone else — is just not acceptable to him.”
So laugh about the car elevators, poke him on his views on gay rights and play up Bain Capital, if you want to, Democrats. Just don’t think Romney won’t hit back just as hard when his campaign’s on the line.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.