Last week, former Gov. Mitt Romney hosted a swank Deer Valley retreat for prominent Republicans. We weren’t nearly important enough to be invited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make obnoxious comments about Romney and a variety of topics.
Could Romney be a kingmaker in the 2016 presidential elections and play an important (and needed) role as the de facto leader of the Republican Party?
Pignanelli: “The fact is, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that ended segregation. ... And the fact is, every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right." — Speaker Newt Gingrich
The national Republican Party reminds me of a beehive knocked over with a swarm of furious worker bees, frantically seeking a queen. Politics abhors a vacuum, which is why there is so much angst plaguing the GOP. Each faction is searching for an ideological leader who can also appeal across the political spectrum. (Traditionally, such disorganization is normal for Democrats, who relish the confusion.)
Mitt is well placed to be an elder statesman leading the flock — if he is willing to be less Romney and more Ronald Reagan. Nationally respected political guru Charlie Cook notes, "The Republicans have an unsustainable business model" that only attracts white older males, a shrinking demographic. Just as Democrats needed to jettison Southern segregationists from the party in the ’60s, Romney (or someone else) must lead the effort to establish policies that bring women, minorities and youth to the Republican tent. Otherwise the GOP becomes the Oldsmobile of American politics.
Webb: The national Republican Party is currently leaderless and rudderless, so Romney can play an important role. Most GOP candidates he has endorsed are winning their primaries. He’s the biggest name the Republicans have. Unfortunately, Romney only represents one faction of the party and isn’t liked much by tea party-types and libertarians. His influence is limited. Although no Republican is capable of unifying the party right now, Hillary Clinton is fully capable of unifying Republicans. The GOP nominee will immediately enjoy the anti-Hillary sentiment, which is substantial. Still, being anti-Hillary won’t be enough to win. The GOP needs a candidate who appeals to mainstream voters.
The strong indicators present earlier this year that the Republicans would take the U.S. Senate in 2014 are weakening. What is the conventional wisdom four months to the election?
Pignanelli: Because President Barack Obama is unpopular, Republicans are flummoxed that key Senate races are not a slam-dunk for them. Notwithstanding this anxiety, polling experts predict numerous GOP successes — unless there is a repeat of 2010 when candidates revealed an affinity for witchcraft and Neanderthal misogyny.
Webb: President Obama is dragging the Democrats down in a stew of scandals and foreign policy debacles. Republicans have mostly avoided nominating crackpot candidates in key races, although a few are still in play. I’ll bet 10 bucks (but not $10,000 because I’m not Mitt Romney) that Republicans take the Senate.
Questions still linger whether an influential Republican will mount a challenge to Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Why is this and is it possible?
Pignanelli: This is an issue of a style — not substance — that is irritating high-profile Republicans. Thus, I field inquiries regarding the junior senator’s future on an hourly basis. While the perception of Lee's vulnerability exists, the reality is far different. Lee is carefully rebuilding his persona, without changing policies. (Lee recently met with Pope Francis, scoring many points with this Italian-Irish Catholic.) Chief of Staff Boyd Matheson shrewdly constructed a crack field team for Lee. Former lawmakers Derek Brown and Ryan Wilcox, along with the popular Bette Arial, are promoting Lee among the faithful, while caring for constituents. This strategy, combined with adjustment in approach, will solidify Lee’s popularity in GOP ranks.
Webb: Utah voters need to decide what they expect of their junior U.S. senator. Do they want a conservative crusader who spends most of his time fighting ideological wars? Or a more pragmatic problem-solver who looks after state, local and constituent concerns? What legislation has Lee sponsored and passed? What has he done for jobs and economic development? Is he working on practical solutions for pro-growth tax reform, sensible deficit reduction and entitlement reform, a workable national energy policy, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, and solutions to the impending transportation and infrastructure crisis? Is he talking and listening to local and state leaders, nonprofits and the business community?
Lee is certainly remaking himself as a more thoughtful conservative, but his role in helping to shut down the government still angers a lot of people. If he appears vulnerable in 2016, a whole pack of ambitious young mainstream Republicans may challenge him. Lee was elected in unique circumstances in 2010, at the height of the tea party rebellion. Those dynamics won’t be repeated in 2016, especially with Utah’s new nomination process.
So what do Utahns want in their junior U.S. senator? And can Lee deliver? He has a couple of years to show he can.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: [email protected] Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: [email protected]