Republican lawmakers aren’t jumping on the Mitt Romney 2016 bandwagon.
Even among his onetime allies, the news that the former Massachusetts governor is considering a third consecutive run for president is being met with criticism or cool indifference on Capitol Hill.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who backed Romney before the 2012 Iowa caucus, said he’s going to “wait and see.”
And another senator who spoke on background to offer a candid assessment of how Romney could affect the 2016 race offered a stark dismissal.
“What we know about Romney last time, he lost the election with working Americans,” said the conservative senator, who backed Romney in 2012. “[Among] those making $30,000 to $50,000, he lost it by 15 percent, and [those making] under $30,000 by 28 percent. You can’t win an election like that. And it can’t just be words. I’ll be looking for candidates who are authentic, who have credibility.”
The bulk of the lawmakers interviewed by The Hill said they were expecting a large and diverse field of candidates, indicating that Romney’s entrance wouldn’t be the kind of game-changing event they’d rally behind just because they supported him in 2012.
Several, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Blunt, also have ties to the Bush family, and could be wooed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who’s also exploring a run. Portman was former President George W. Bush’s budget director, while Blunt was the House GOP whip during his administration and helped push the White House’s agenda through Congress.
Even lawmakers he campaigned for in 2014, such as Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), aren’t automatically in the Romney camp.
On Tuesday, Gardner was noncommittal when asked what he thought of Romney potentially running for president again.
“There are a lot of qualified candidates on the Republican side and it will be a great opportunity for all of us to support someone who has a better vision [than President Obama] for this country,” the freshman senator said.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), another Romney backer from 2012, also said he’d have to see how things shake out.
“I’m going to reserve judgment. It’s too early in the process for me to make that decision,” he said. “We’re going to have quite a number of good candidates.”
Those close to Romney say he’s been “burning up the phone lines” letting people know that he’s serious about launching another bid. But that outreach doesn’t appear to have hit Capitol Hill yet, where several senators said they hadn’t heard from him.
“I haven’t had a conversation with Mitt Romney since the last time he was in Iowa in 2012, so I wouldn’t know what’s behind his motivations,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who held out before finally endorsing Romney in 2012.
“Who?” Portman asked jokingly. The Washington Post reported Romney had phoned the senator over the weekend.
“I don’t know if he is [running] or not,” Portman told The Hill.
The Ohio Republican helped Romney with his debate preparation in 2012 by playing the part of Obama in practice sessions and was also on the short list of vice presidential candidates.
GOP indifference in Washington underscores the challenges Romney will face if he embarks on another presidential run. He struggled throughout the last presidential cycle to excite the conservative base, and that will be just as big of an issue in 2016 if he runs.
“There are some in Washington who put forth the theory that the path to electoral victory is nominating the most moderate candidates we can find,” said conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who’s also weighing a presidential bid.
“It is not a path to winning and if we nominate a candidate in 2016 in the same mold as Bob Dole, or John McCain or Mitt Romney … then the same voters who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016, and Hillary Clinton will be the next president,” Cruz continued.
Romney will also have to convince donors and establishment Republicans who were disappointed by his previous campaign missteps that he has a compelling argument for why the third time will be a charm.
Many Republicans have lamented what they saw in 2012 as a missed opportunity to unseat Obama, whom they believed to be a vulnerable and unpopular incumbent.
“One of the questions for Mitt Romney is, are you going to run the same campaign as last time? If so, then you may not be the right candidate,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “If you’re prepared to run a thoughtful, learned-from-experience campaign, then we’d like to hear your thoughts.
“It cannot be identical to last time, because many people were disappointed in his ability to properly define who he was and what he would do,” Issa warned. “That’s not a left or right statement, but it’s a statement about his campaign, which was certainly not good enough to define a clear difference between RomneyCare and ObamaCare, between Romney foreign affairs and Obama foreign affairs, and so on.”
Romney supporters say that, if he runs, they’re confident he will have a plan to address those deficiencies. He’s at or near the top of most polls of Republican candidates right now, and his supporters argue that he’s been proven right on a host of issues that will be pertinent to voters who have buyer’s remorse with Obama, particularly on foreign policy.
It’s not all bad news for Romney, who does still have some loyalists on Capitol Hill.
Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), both fellow Mormons, said they were excited and intrigued by another potential Romney run. Hatch in particular said he wouldn’t think twice about backing Romney again in 2016.
“I was happy to see it. He’s one of the finest men that has ever run for the position,” Hatch said. “I know him very, very well, and we cannot do better than Romney.”
Cristina Marcos contributed.