Gone are the days following Mitt Romney's bruising loss to President Obama in November 2012, when the mere mention of Romney's name would send Republicans slapping their foreheads or shaking their heads with regret. Today, the Romney renaissance is here.
The former Massachusetts governor is now seen as a big draw, rather than a liability, on the midterm campaign trail. Indeed, all the candidates he’s backed this election cycle have won their primaries. After what seemed like an eternal hibernation, Romney has been on a tear lately, giving interviews on everything from President Obama to the Olympics. There’s even an effort to draft Romney to run again in 2016, and he’s polling well in a hypothetical presidential race in states like New Hampshire.Those who are urging on Romney point to Ronald Reagan, who ran three times before becoming president (although he didn’t clinch the Republican nomination until his third try).
So how does one go from being the party’s laughing stock to elder statesman?
If you ask former Romney advisers, it’s all about buyer’s remorse.
Robert O’Brien, a former senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, pointed to the failed candidate’s once-mocked warnings about a hostile Russia and Islamic extremists in Mali, plus Romney's concerns about implementing Obamacare.
“People are asking: ‘Was Mitt Romney right about everything?' ... Mitt starts to look like a prophet, and it's created buzz that this guy knows what he’s talking about,” O’Brien told msnbc. That, in turn, has created a “wholly spontaneous” group of 2014 candidates across the country reaching out to Romney instead of the other way around, he added. “They are desperate to get him to campaign for him. I don’t think the Romney brand has ever been better."
According to a CNN/ORC International poll from late last month, if the 2012 election were held today, Romney would defeat Obama in the popular vote, 53% to 44%. The poll may say less about Romney, who is unburdened by the popularity-destroying rigors of governing, and more about Obama, who is confronting a sputtering second term made worse by a gridlocked Congress and Republican lawmakers who have blocked him at every turn.
Ryan Williams, Romney’s former campaign spokesman, said another factor contributing to Romney’s turnaround was the Netflix documentary “Mitt" -- released earlier this year -- which helped him seem more personable than the wooden candidate voters saw in the 2012 campaign.
“It showed him in a personal light, softened his image and showed the public who the real Mitt Romney is: a very caring individual, a good person, a family man who cares about his country,” said Williams.
But not all conservatives -- particularly on the far right -- see Romney in the same favorable light. Breitbart’s Tony Lee scoffed at the notion of a Romney comeback.
“In 2012, Romney did not excite the conservative base, turned off working-class voters who believed he did not care about their concerns and lost minority voters by huge landslides,” Lee wrote on Sunday, adding that Romney made Obama, whom Lee called “one of the most elitist and crony capitalist presidents in recent memory, seem like a common man who cared about average Americans when compared to him.”
Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, argued that Romney’s resurgence says more about the GOP than Romney himself.
“He’s part of the past, and they’re really taking it quite literally these days. Two years ago, voters rejected Mitt Romney and everything he campaigned on. What’s you’re seeing is Republican running on that same policy,” said Czin.
That hasn’t stopped more than 116,000 from signing a “Draft Mitt” petition. His friend, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has stirred the pot, saying he believes the former Massachusetts governor will run again -- and win. Romney, of course, has repeatedly said another run is out of the question. “Oh, no, no no,” he told The New York Times when asked if he’d even consider it. For good measure, he added, “No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.” He told CNN, “I’m not running for president in 2016. It’s time for someone else to take that responsibility.”
Conservative strategist Keith Appell, who has previously consulted for the Republican National Committee, recently told msnbc that the 2016 Romney obsession is coming from some in the GOP establishment who have reservations about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- both considered “establishment” candidates. Christie, once seen as a front-runner, has been tarnished by the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal and is too liberal on some issues to get past the primaries, said Appell. As for Bush, well, he’s a Bush. Maybe Mitt is the best hope of establishment Republicans.
Romney has plans to stump soon on behalf of candidates in Arkansas, North Carolina and West Virginia. In September he has trips in the swing states of Colorado and Virginia.
Several Romney advisers said they took those trips at face value and that any presidential prospects are legitimately in his rearview mirror.
“I think if he chose to do so, he’d be a formidable opponent and a great asset to our party,” said Jim Merrill, a senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign. “My instinct is, however, that much like he’s doing right now, he’ll find other ways to serve our party and our country.”
“I’m crossing my fingers but I’m not holding my breath,” added Williams. “… I don’t see him running for office ever again.”