Pundits and political professionals seem increasingly confident that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee next year — but conservative skeptics are still not reconciled to that scenario.
Their suspicion of Romney remains strong, for well-known reasons — in short, his shifts of position on social issues and the healthcare reform package he enacted in Massachusetts — and they are insistent that he can yet be vanquished in his bid to become the GOP’s standard-bearer.
If that does not happen, they say, they will reluctantly vote for him over President Obama. But their real focus will shift from the national race to contests closer to home.
Conservative activists are also determined to hold Romney’s feet to the fire, doing their utmost to ensure he delivers on any promises made to win their support — or at least placate them — during the primacy process.
“That’s your promise? We expect you to do it,” said Steve Lonegan of Americans for Prosperity, the fiscally conservative, Tea Party-aligned group backed by the Koch brothers. “We’re going to be there every day from your swearing-in, and the day after.”
The key problem for conservatives is that none of their would-be tribunes has gained enough traction to emerge as a clear alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. There is no single “un-Romney” candidate.
Businessman Herman Cain jumped from a single-digit contender to leading the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, thanks in part to a surprise win in Florida’s influential GOP straw poll three weeks ago. But it is very much in doubt whether Cain, who has little campaign infrastructure to speak of, can mount a credible challenge.
Many conservative leaders are still swooning for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), but her prospects appear to have waned of late. Her poll results have never recovered from their precipitous slide in the wake of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entrance into the race.
Perry’s campaign was launched amid enormous media attention and considerable excitement from grassroots activists. He appeared to threaten Romney for several weeks, but weak debate performances and heavy fire from the other contenders have stalled his momentum.
The end result is a sullen mood among many on the right — and a tangible lack of desire to do anything more than pull the lever for Romney, if it comes to that, in November 2012.
“As much as we can’t stand Barack Obama, if the Republicans choose to nominate Mitt Romney, it’s up to them to get him past the finish line,” warned Dustin Stockton, who co-founded the conservative Western Representation PAC, one of several conservative political action committees fundraising ahead of planned anti-Romney campaigns in key early primaries.
The right flank of the GOP — comprising many groups, including the Tea Party — has never trusted the former Massachusetts governor.
The fiscally conservative group Club for Growth has criticized him on numerous occasions, and he came in sixth in a straw poll of Values Voters earlier this month, garnering only 4 percent of support from that group of social conservatives.
But nowhere has Romney’s friction with the right been as evident as with the Tea Party. A business executive most at home in a suit and tie, Romney has clashed with the blue-collar, grassroots themes of the movement and its rallies.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips rejected what he called the “myth of Romney inevitability,” but admitted that in the “nightmare scenario” where Romney wins the nomination, he would vote for him.
“He is better than Obama, but not necessarily by a whole lot,” Phillips said. “I’m going to push the button for him; I’m going to hope he’s better than I think.”
When Romney offered an olive branch in September by headlining a rally in New Hampshire, major Tea Party group FreedomWorks, headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), planned its own anti-Romney protest. FreedomWorks did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Working to put Republicans who are more conservative than Romney into Senate and House seats is likely to be at the top of the right’s agenda in the event of his becoming the nominee. In the first years of the Tea Party’s existence, nowhere has its influence over governance been as tangible as its ability to pull Republican leadership in Congress to the right.
Phillips said he hoped that electing more fervently conservative candidates to other offices would keep Romney accountable.
“I’m going to work hard to put Republicans in the Senate, and more in the House, in the hope that he will be handcuffed by the conservatives in Congress.”
“If he does ascend to the presidency, he’s going to have to deal with the Tea Party just like [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] and [House Speaker] John Boehner [R-Ohio],” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Ultimately, Romney could have a silver bullet to neutralize his problems with the Republican right wing: nominating a vice presidential candidate of Tea Party pedigree. Cain, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bachmann have all been held up as possible VP candidates who could woo the GOP base. Romney has managed to build a mostly supportive relationship with all three.
On the other hand, Romney can’t afford to entirely turn off the independent voters who are disappointed with Obama but put off by Tea Party rhetoric.
Just look at how choosing an exciting future Tea Party standard-bearer for the No. 2 slot worked out in 2008 for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).