Romney's missteps could cost party the Senate, strategists say

Republicans believe Mitt Romney’s mistakes could prevent them from winning back the Senate.

Romney’s failure to close the gap with President Obama less than 50 days before the election, as well as a variety of high-profile gaffes, have raised concerns that the GOP nominee will strand candidates in close swing-states races.

Polls show Obama leading Romney in Ohio and Virginia, two states where strategists think the top of the ticket will most affect the Senate contests.

ADVERTISEMENT
Several Republican senators believe Romney’s campaign needs to change course by presenting a bolder vision of how he would govern, if elected, and fleshing out his policy agenda with more detail.

Republican strategists say that Romney has had a rough stretch recently and warn it could cost the party Senate seats if his execution fails to improve by November.

“Every year the top of the ticket has a great influence on the races below. Massachusetts is a very competitive race, and we have a great candidate in Scott Brown. If Obama wins overwhelmingly, it’s a lot more difficult for Scott Brown to get reelected,” said John Weaver, a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 and 2008 presidential bids.

“If your guy wins the White House, he’s going to sweep in one or two or three Senate races that might not happen otherwise,” he added.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and another GOP Senate candidate in a Northeastern state — Connecticut’s Linda McMahon — both sought to distance themselves from Romney’s remarks, made during a fundraiser earlier this year, that 47 percent of the nation depends on government handouts.

“I disagree with Gov. Romney’s insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care,” McMahon said in a statement. “I know that the vast majority of those who rely on the government are not in that situation because they want to be.”

Brown, who has fallen behind Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in three recent polls, denounced Romney’s comments hours later.

“That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in. Too many people today who want to work are being forced into public assistance for lack of jobs,” he said in an email to The Hill.

Several Republican strategists expressed frustration that Romney wasn’t running a better campaign, and warned it could cost them dearly in a number of states.

“If Romney doesn’t improve, that could cost us our chance of picking up the Senate, for sure,” said one senior strategist working on a number of Senate races. “Honestly, I don’t know who’s driving the train, but they need to get their message focused. “

The strategist said Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” hurt the most in blue-leaning states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well as swing states where the GOP Senate candidates’ hopes are closely tied to Romney’s.

“The fortunes of these candidates are tied together in these closer states, in Ohio, Nevada, Virginia,” he said. “There is a little give between Romney and our candidates, but that give is very small. “

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell agreed, warning that Romney’s remark could excite the Democratic base and hurt down-ticket Republicans.

“Republican Senate candidates in moderate-to-left-leaning states who need to keep the Democratic base pacified and still pull a sizable portion of independents in order to win could very well be hurt by this,” he said.

“These folks are predominantly running on their own brand and cannot afford to have the perceived negative aspects of the GOP label affixed to their candidacy. And if the Republican Party is to retake the Senate in 2012, their hopes rest largely on the success of many of these candidates,” he added.

Several high-level GOP donors who attended a strategy session with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) during the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., told The Hill they hoped the Romney campaign could push several Senate candidates to victory in tough races.

Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters during the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., that it would be difficult for Democrats to keep the Senate if Obama lost.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said missteps by the Romney campaign in September are not likely to affect Senate races but warned the stakes would get higher closer to the election.

“If he has a bad three days right before Nov. 6, the answer is yes,” Ayres said if asked if poor performance by the Romney campaign could hurt the Republican bid to take over the Senate. “Something that happens in the middle of September isn’t going to impact how the Senate races turn out on Election Day.”

One Republican strategist who works on Senate races, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ohio GOP candidate Josh Mandel has appeared to distance himself from Romney while trying to connect with blue-collar voters.

Stephen Brooks, associate director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said there has been little overlap between Mandel’s and Romney’s campaign messages.

Romney’s emphasis on the weak national economy is less persuasive in Ohio, where the unemployment rate is below the national average. Democrats in the Buckeye State have trumpeted Romney’s opposition to a government bailout of the automotive industry, which employs thousands there.

“I would say the Mandel campaign is really doing an individual Ohio campaign. A number of themes or messages of the Obama campaign and [Sen. Sherrod] Brown’s [D-Ohio] campaign are parallel,” said Brooks. “Mandel’s vision isn’t terribly in line with what Romney has.”

— Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.