Some of them go back to 2002, the win. Others slogged through Iowa, twice, and rode aboard the Mitt Mobile. In 2012, they were so close to the White House they could taste it.
Now, the Mitt Romney diaspora — an army of former aides and advisers from Romney’s long political career — are arrayed among a host of Republican presidential campaigns. But, through no concerted effort, they are curiously aligned once again in common cause, a stem-to-stern effort that has united old comrades even as they nominally play for different teams: stopping Donald Trump.
“We are united,” said one former Romney aide now working for another campaign, which he said would not permit him to speak for attribution.
“It’s a common goal and not just for Romney people, but for anyone invested in Republicanism, conservatism, and anyone who gives a flying [expletive] about what we’re trying to do here. Even if you’re not getting paid, this isn’t good for anybody,” he said.
“It would be ironic if it wasn’t like every single person in the political wing who can stare more than five seconds into the future wasn’t mortified or petrified at the prospect of Trump being the nominee,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson who called a Trump nomination “an existential threat” to the party.
Trump, soaring to the top of both national and early-state polls, has exercised a centrifugal force on much of the rest of the 17-candidate Republican field. At the same time, he has worried establishment Republicans who complain that he is rendering the Republican brand less viable in a general election, regardless of who winds up with the nomination.
Trump is, in a sense, the anti-Mitt. And he is leading, by no small margin, the would-be heirs to Romney’s throne as sovereign of the party’s moderate, establishment, country-club wing.
That faction of the GOP is where most of the Romney alumni have landed in the 2016 cycle. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush appears to have garnered the most former Romney hands, including longtime advisers Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty; his top 2012 New Hampshire and Iowa strategists Rich Killion and David Kochel; and Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant with longstanding ties to both Romney and Bush who is leading a super PAC backing Bush. His campaign manager, Danny Diaz, was a senior adviser to Romney in 2012.
Most of the rest of the Romney graduates are splayed across campaigns competing with Bush for the voters who propelled Romney to the 2012 nomination.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has scored, among others, Romney’s 2012 political director, Rich Beeson; New Hampshire director Jim Merrill; and longtime aide Will Ritter. Brian Jones, a veteran of George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign who helped advise Romney in 2012, is working for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, as is former Romney media consultant Russ Schriefer.
“Given how wide the field is, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they went in different directions, but they’ve all gone to serious people,” said Brian J. Walsh, a Washington-based Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns.
Romney himself has signaled the charge against Trump, taking to Twitter to criticize Trump in the wake of the latter’s insult to Senator John McCain’s war record. But, said Romney supporters, he has not sought to direct his flock toward any one candidate.
“The encouragement from the top, from Mitt himself, has been: ‘Go where you want. These are all good people.’ He basically set you free,” said Tom Rath, the former attorney general of New Hampshire and a two-time Romney backer. Along with John E. Sununu, a former US senator from New Hampshire, Rath this time is supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Regardless of where the Romney acolytes have landed, they find themselves, at this point in the race, facing shared challenges. First, they must stop the Trump phenomenon — or wait for it to burn itself out — and then they must distinguish themselves from one another and the remainder of the field.
“What seems to be the biggest problem for 17 announced candidates is: ‘How do I get myself in the top 10? How do I get myself noticed, when there’s this circumstance where Donald Trump has come in and taken so much oxygen out of the room?’ ” said Tom Reynolds, a former Republican congressman from New York.
For the Romney alums, there is a sense of we’ve-seen-this-before. During the 2012 campaign, Romney endured a string of flare-ups from other candidates who, at one point or another, challenged him in the polls by appealing to the party’s more conservative populist base: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum.
At each turn, Romney persevered, emerging with heavy political damage, but victorious nonetheless. Often, he won out because voters ultimately decided that the flavor-of-the-month candidate was not prepared to be commander-in-chief.
This time around, Trump’s durability has, thus far, defied that pragmatism.
Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based GOP strategist who helped write the party’s post-mortem on the 2012 campaign, pointed to an interview Trump gave last week with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, during which the real estate magnate informed Hewitt that the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah would begin to matter to him “when it’s appropriate.”
“I will know more about it than you know, and believe me, it won’t take me long,” Trump told Hewitt.
“It’s hard to imagine a serious presidential candidate, in this time with all the concerns of terrorism and unease in the Middle East, that a serious presidential candidate wouldn’t understand the names, particularly Hamas and Hezbollah,” said Barbour, who is supporting Texas Governor Rick Perry.
“This isn’t a reality show,” he added, referring to Trump’s successful run as a television star. “This is leader of the free world, and to be honest I think he’s more negative than positive, and I think people in a general election are looking for an optimistic, unifying candidate as opposed to a divisive, negative candidate.”
But, despite a range of strategies to topple Trump, none of the others has been able to, leaving some Republicans pining for a certain two-time presidential candidate from Massachusetts.
“Romney’s the one candidate who, if he was on the stage with Donald, he would bulldoze him,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the US Chamber of Commerce and Bob Dole’s campaign manager in 1996. “He’s smarter, he’s more worldly, he gets politics, and he would not take it.”
Meanwhile, there is growing alarm within the Romney wing of the Republican Party that the longer Trump dominates the field and the headlines, the higher the hurdles will be for the eventual GOP nominee in a general election.
“Not only would Donald Trump not win the White House next year, he’s also doing a great deal of harm to the Republican Party today with his very divisive rhetoric, particularly against the types of people Republicans are going to need to win next year, particularly female voters and Hispanics,” Walsh said.
Some Republicans hold hope that the cavalry is approaching.
“I think you’re going to see more concerted efforts against him in the future,” said Wilson, the Florida-based strategist. “A very broad and decentralized movement coming from a surprisingly diverse set of different buckets of Republican voters and communities” is, he said, beginning to mobilize financial efforts to take out Trump.
But that goal, shared seemingly across the GOP establishment, has proved elusive.