By Robert Costa and Philip Rucker August 2 at 6:26 PM
President Obama thumped Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, but now their political standings seem reversed. During a summer in which Democratic candidates are keeping their distance from an unpopular president, Romney is emerging as one of the Republican Party’s most in-demand campaign surrogates.
Over three days in mid-August, Romney will campaign for GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidates in West Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas, aides said. In September, he is planning visits to the presidential swing states of Colorado and Virginia.
Romney is filling up his October schedule, as well. Senate hopefuls in Iowa and New Hampshire are eager for him to return before November’s midterms, while Romney is weighing trips to other Senate battlegrounds. At least one high-profile Senate campaign said it has produced a television advertisement featuring Romney ready to air in the fall.
“Democrats don’t want to be associated with Barack Obama right now, but Republicans are dying to be associated with Mitt Romney,” said Spencer Zwick, a longtime Romney confidant who chaired his national finance council. He added: “Candidates, campaigns and donors in competitive races are calling saying, ‘Can we get Mitt here?’ They say, ‘We’ve looked at the polling, and Mitt Romney moves the needle for us.’ That’s somewhat unexpected for someone who lost the election.”
For a party without a consensus leader — nor a popular elder statesman like Democratic former president Bill Clinton — Romney is stepping forward in both red and blue states to fill that role for the GOP.
“There’s a pretty big void in the party right now for national leaders, and Romney’s in a unique position, having been around the track, to help fill that void,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who oversees the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political operation.
Romney continues to deny interest in a third presidential run in 2016, but his moves have his supporters yearning for him to give it a go and arguing that he would be a stronger candidate than last time.
In recent months, Romney has been endorsing candidates, including a number of establishment favorites who went on to defeat tea party firebrands in hard-fought primaries. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), whom Romney recently endorsed for reelection, said in an interview that Romney remains the GOP’s best hope of winning back the White House.
Asked whether he and other Republican officials are coalescing around Romney as a 2016 favorite, Mead said: “There is a movement afoot. . . . I’d tell him, ‘Governor Romney, people here in Wyoming and around the country would encourage you to take another look at it.’ ”
Supporters also point to Obama’s struggles on crises ranging from his health-care law to Russian aggression to conflict in the North African country of Mali — all issues Romney raised in the 2012 campaign — and say time has proved Romney right.
Obama won the popular vote 51 percent to 47 percent in 2012, but a CNN/ORC International poll this past week showed Romney winning 53 percent to 44 percent if a rematch were held today. The same poll showed Romney losing to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton 55 percent to 42 percent in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.
Democratic strategists said GOP candidates who appear with Romney in their states are misreading voters.
“He is a walking, talking caricature of a Republican Party that favors only the very rich and big powerful corporations at a cost to middle-class families,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republican 2016 contenders such as Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) also are building political capital while stumping for GOP candidates this summer and fall.
But in the minds of many Republican operatives and financiers, Romney stands apart from the others because he appears above the fray and without any overt personal ambition. He is also one of the few national Republicans who can raise significant amounts of money and capture the attention of voters in most GOP blocs.
After a retreat into seclusion following his 2012 loss, Romney’s reemergence on the political stage coincides with a softening of his public image. “Mitt,” a Netflix documentary about Romney’s campaigns released this year, shows him as a devoted family man committed to his Mormon faith. And last week, Romney posted widely shared pictures on social media showing him, wife Ann and five of their 22 grandchildren hiking, swimming and rock climbing during a summer tour of national parks in the West.
In June, Romney’s donor retreat in Park City, Utah, had the feel of a revival. Although Christie and Paul spoke at the elite confab, the buzz was about drafting Romney.
Romney insisted to reporters he would not run: “The unavailable is always the most attractive, right? That goes in dating, as well.”
Still, the Chamber’s Reed said he expects Romney to assess the GOP field sometime in 2015 and give serious consideration to another candidacy.
“He could come on the scene around Labor Day [of 2015] because he’s able to flip his switch,” Reed said. He argued that Romney could activate his fundraising network and be in a “commanding position” faster than any other prospective candidate.
For now, Romney’s associates said, he is focused entirely on helping Republicans win the majority in the Senate in November. He communicates regularly about the campaign landscape with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is a close friend, and other political allies. Longtime advisers Beth Myers and Ron Kaufman, as well as aide Kelli Harrison, help field requests from candidates and manage his travel.
During the week of Aug. 18, according to aides, Romney is set to campaign in West Virginia with Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R), who is favored to win the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D); in North Carolina with state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), who is challenging Sen. Kay Hagan (D); and in Arkansas for gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson (R).
Aides said Romney has also scheduled September campaign trips to Colorado, for gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez (R), and Virginia, where he has campaigned for Ed Gillespie (R), a senior Romney adviser in 2012 who is challenging Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).
Romney campaigned this year with Scott Brown (R), the former senator from Massachusetts now running in neighboring New Hampshire against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). Romney has deep political roots in New Hampshire, where his family owns a summer vacation home. In June, he returned to the farm in Stratham where he announced his 2012 campaign to stage a rally with Brown.
“Mitt Romney is one of the most unifying figures in the party, and having him here was a huge shot in the arm,” said Colin Reed, Brown’s campaign manager.
Advisers said Romney is expected to return this fall to New Hampshire and to Iowa, where he campaigned in May for Joni Ernst in the run-up to the Republican Senate primary, which she won handily.
Romney called Ernst “a real Iowan,” telling voters that she “didn’t just sit at home needle-pointing” but was raised doing “squealing work on the farm” — a reference to Ernst’s television ad in which she boasts of “castrating hogs.”
“When he was here last time, he offered to do whatever we felt he needed to do,” said David Kochel, who was Romney’s top Iowa adviser and is informally advising Ernst. “He’s invested. He wants her to win.”