Republicans are worried that Mitt Romney’s increasingly conservative rhetoric on a number of hot-button issues could hurt him in the general election.
Their fear is that while Romney’s position on matters like immigration, collective bargaining and social issues could boost him among conservative primary voters, thereby getting him the nomination, it could come back to haunt him with swing-state voters during the general election.
The former Massachusetts governor has fully embraced Arizona’s controversial immigration law — a move that will likely help him in that state in Tuesday’s primary but could alienate Hispanic voters — and vocally opposed the DREAM Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrants brought here as children to receive in-state college tuition.
He’s also ratcheted up his rhetoric against unions heading into Michigan’s primary, and voiced support for controversial anti-collective bargaining measures in both Ohio and Wisconsin, two other swing states. That move could help him in those states’ primaries but hurt him there in the general election, as well as in other blue-collar swing states like Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Romney also has said he would support a “personhood amendment” barring abortion at the federal level, which could hurt him in states ranging from Virginia to Ohio to Colorado where similar legislation may be on the ballot or moving through the statehouses.
Losses in a couple of those states could cost Republicans the White House.
The chief worry among Republicans is Romney’s stance on immigration.
“My biggest concern is looking at how immigration is going to play,” said O’Connell. “Along with independents, I think Hispanics are going to pretty much decide this election. In places like Virginia, Florida and Western states like Nevada, his immigration rhetoric could very well be the difference in a close election.”
Romney’s hard-line immigration rhetoric could hurt him the worst in Southwestern swing states with large Hispanic populations: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and even Arizona and Texas. But it could also hurt him in other swing states with large and rapidly growing Hispanic populations, like Florida and even Virginia.
His campaign pointed out the former governor supports legal immigration.
“He wants to attract job creators and innovators from other countries because he recognizes that immigrants are key to powering many of our industries. Mitt Romney will raise caps on high-skill visas and will staple a green card to the diploma of any eligible graduate with an advanced degree in math, science or engineering. Mitt Romney is opposed to illegal immigration and amnesty because it is unfair to those who want to come to this country legally,” said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Stanford Professor Gary Segura, a top pollster of Hispanic opinion for Latino Decisions, was more blunt on Romney’s position on immigration.
“It’s beyond insane — it’s crazy at a level I can’t even begin to understand,” he said. “It’s almost as if Romney has made the conscious decision to write off Latinos. I have no idea what he’s thinking. It’s some form of electoral death wish.”
Another bubbling problem for Romney: Social issues, specifically contraception. Romney said in the fall that he would “absolutely” support a federal “personhood amendment” that would define life as beginning at fertilization and would ban abortion — and possibly some forms of contraception.
The issue has hit a fever pitch in Virginia, where the State Legislature is trying to pass it. Voters in the state disagree with the law by a 19-point margin, according to a recent poll.
The fight is likely to re-emerge in other swing states.
Personhood USA President Keith Mason told The Hill that he expected his group would get the issue on the ballot as a referendum in Colorado, Ohio and possibly Nevada this election.
Romney’s union rhetoric also could hurt him. He has been unabashedly flaying Democrats as “union stooges” and attacking the United Auto Workers during the Michigan primary, a major tone shift from earlier in the campaign.
Romney also has voiced support for anti-collective bargaining measures pushed by Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has endorsed Romney, told The Detroit News in mid-February that Romney’s union rhetoric could hurt him.
“I think that the biggest thing he should focus on is jobs and the challenges in Washington and how that is holding Michigan back,” he said.
O’Connell said unions were going to work hard to beat Republicans anyway, but that Romney’s rhetoric was further antagonizing them — as well as blue-collar Midwestern voters who weren’t in unions.
“The union rhetoric could be a deciding difference in Ohio, and that’s what Romney really has to watch,” he said. “It could really come back to hurt him.”
Romney’s campaign noted that “big labor unions spent hundreds of millions of dollars to elect President Obama, and he has been repaying them ever since.”
“Union bosses have repeatedly attacked Mitt Romney in this campaign because they know he will end the sweetheart deals they have enjoyed under President Obama. Mitt Romney has fought labor bosses before and he will fight them again,” Saul said.
Ed Sarpolus, a nonpartisan pollster based in Michigan, said Romney’s recent union rhetoric could hurt him in the Rust Belt states, especially in crucial Ohio but also in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Iowa.
“He’s thinking about what he needs to win the nomination, and he’s less concerned about the general election,” Sarpolus said. “We already know it’s going to hurt somewhat … There’s going to be some bad blood on this.”
Democrats have seized on Romney’s moves.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) told The Hill that Romney is “coming across as an extremist.”
“These elections are generally won by those people in the middle, independents ... what the governor is doing, his whole frame of reference is the primary and he’s playing up to the primary voters and in doing so I do think he alienates himself and is distancing himself from mainstream America.”