Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts just six years ago. Today he’s so unpopular here he’s barely bothering to campaign in the state. There are reasons for that—and they could spell doom for his presidential campaign.
A failure to connect in local communities seems to be characterizing Romney’s current run for president as well. During the primaries, he managed to dispatch his weak opposition mainly by carpet-bombing them with negative ads. The plan worked well enough for clearing out the likes of Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, but it may have left Romney somewhat challenged in the much tougher general election. In the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Obama has a total of 404 field offices listed on his website. Romney, who’s been effectively running for president since 2004, lists 176.
Romney’s inability to grasp the nuances of local politics and the power of more than surface-level connections was also behind perhaps his biggest failure in Massachusetts: the botched state legislature elections of 2004.
Eager that year to prove himself the kind of leader capable of uniting reasonable people of all political stripes, Romney and the Massachusetts GOP set about building a massive slate of 131 Republican candidates for the State House, pushing some $3 million behind them. The plan was to get enough of them elected to inject a good dose of red into this bluest of states, loosening the Democratic vise grip on the House and Senate, and in the process establishing Romney as a worthy presidential candidate. Building his case, Romney attended 66 events for 42 legislative candidates in the months leading up to election day. It didn’t work. Nearly all of his candidates went down to defeat. The Republicans actually lost three seats in the legislature, leaving them with their fewest since 1867.
The Globe was blunt in its assessment: “Legislative Losses Are Also a Major Blow to Romney’s Prestige,” blared one headline. It’s true that Romney’s plan was hampered by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry being on the presidential ballot that year, but the real problem was that Romney didn’t seem to grasp that legislative races are, above all, local. For years, Republicans in Massachusetts had focused on electing headliners like Romney, Weld, and Cellucci at the expense of developing “bench depth” with bottom-of-the-ticket candidates—selectmen, sheriffs, and the like. So while Romney and the Massachusetts GOP found plenty of people with impressive private-sector backgrounds to run for office, few of them were familiar to voters. Asking them to begin their political careers with a run for state legislature was too big a leap. “It’s hard to start from doing nothing and then run for Senate,” just-reelected state Senator Scott Brown—one of the few Republicans who did win that year—told the Globe at the time.
Someone truly interested in bringing more balance to Massachusetts’ political landscape would have been better off developing a smaller, more-seasoned slate, one that might have resulted in enough new Republican lawmakers to prevent the House and Senatefrom overriding all of a Republican governor’s vetoes. It would have been slow, unglamorous work—and you don’t get much national publicity for slow, unglamorous work.