Mitt Romney, Establishment Candidate

Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney speaks to area business leaders at a luncheon at the Governors Inn in Rochester, N.H., Tuesday, May 29, 2007. AP Photo/Jim Cole

This column was written by Noam Scheiber.

Jay Sekulow is hardly a household name among rank and file Republicans. True, the self-described "messianic Jew" does host a radio show popular among some evangelicals. But his primary claim to fame is the American Center for Law & Justice, an organization he founded to litigate controversial religious-freedom cases. Over the years, Sekulow has won favorable Supreme Court rulings on behalf of everyone from abortion-clinic protestors to student Bible-study groups. These victories have, in turn, landed him in such rarefied company as The National Law Journal's "100 Most Influential Lawyers" and The American Lawyer's "Public Sector 45" — accolades that don't necessarily turn heads at a Middle-American potluck, but which definitely get you noticed in Washington.

As it happens, Sekulow is also emblematic of the kind of prominent social conservative who's recently fallen for Mitt Romney. Sekulow came away from an October meeting between Romney and evangelical leaders unfazed by the governor's Mormon faith and convinced that Romney's recent conversion on abortion was "from the heart," as he told The Washington Post. In February, Sekulow told The New York Times that, "There's this growing acceptance of this idea that Mitt Romney may well be and is our best candidate." The man who's been dubbed "The Almighty's Attorney-at-Law" even subsequently agreed to meet with evangelical leaders in Iowa and South Carolina on Romney's behalf.

Alas, as just about anyone who follows GOP politics can tell you, Sekulow is going to have his work cut out for him. The consensus among highbrow pundits — and, full disclosure, some of my best friends are highbrow pundits — is that Romney's Mormonism is likely to doom him, since evangelicals regard the religion with deep suspicion. To which the proper response is: Maybe, maybe not. Romney's Mormonism would almost certainly doom him if the GOP picked nominees the way Fox picks American Idols. But, then, this is the Republican Party we're talking about, not reality television. In the Republican Party I know, elites like Sekulow have enormous influence over the choice of nominee, and it's hard to believe that's about to change.

That's not to say it couldn't, of course. In effect, the Romney campaign provides a near-perfect test of who really wields power in the GOP. On the one hand, conservative elites look at Romney and see a tall, good-looking, well-spoken, highly successful capitalist who, on top of all that — dayanu! — is willing to pretend he opposes gay marriage, abortion and illegal immigration. In addition to Sekulow, Romney wowed the likes of Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer at last October's meet-and-greet with evangelical heavies. He performed a similar feat two weeks earlier in a meeting with the Baptist leadership of South Carolina. Romney won positive reviews this January at a conclave of influential conservatives sometimes called the GOP's Renaissance Weekend. And he has thus far gained the admiration of anti-tax jihadist Grover Norquist, disgraced evangelical huckster Ralph Reed, Focus on the Family honcho James Dobson, and much of the staff of National Review.

On the other hand, the typical conservative evangelical looks at Romney and sees a dangerous cult member. As Amy Sullivan has noted in The Washington Monthly, there is a geyser of anti-Mormon sentiment just waiting to be tapped among heartland evangelicals. Sullivan cites, for example, the firestorm a Baptist leader recently ignited simply for apologizing to Mormons after a coreligionist called Utah "a stronghold of Satan." Similarly, a prominent conservative activist recently related the following exchange to my colleague Michelle Cottle: "I asked a friend of mine who's a pastor in Middle America, 'You have a choice between two candidates: Hillary Clinton versus someone who is good on social issues and who is a Mormon.' And my friend said, 'I don't think I could vote for a Mormon.'" And on it goes.

Suffice it to say, if Romney comes up short, it will amount to a repudiation of the party elite by the grassroots. I, for one, will have no choice but to concede that the GOP establishment isn't quite the decisive force most Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) assume it to be. If, on the other hand, Romney clinches the nomination despite the intense suspicion he arouses, we will have unassailable proof that the GOP is dominated by its establishment.

So why am I so confident about Romney? In a word: history. Up until the 1960s, local bosses dominated the selection of both parties' nominees. A typical party convention would consist of, say, the New York delegation slugging it out with the Ohio delegation until a candidate finally emerged.

But two things happened that decade to set the parties on different courses. On the Democratic side, the back-room model reached its reductio ad absurdum when party elders settled on Hubert Humphrey even though he hadn't competed in — much less won — a single primary. The outcry was so intense that, by 1972, Democrats had completely overhauled their nominating process, enacting a series of reforms that undermined the party bosses and gave voters and liberal interest groups greater influence.

By contrast, the formative — some would say searing — Republican experience came in 1964, when conservatives installed Barry Goldwater as their nominee by seizing control of local party organizations. As Rick Perlstein recounts in "Before the Storm," the GOP establishment desperately put forth one fair-haired alternative after another — New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, former Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and, most promisingly, Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton. But, each time, the would-be saviors were promptly chewed up by the organizational meat-grinder that was the Goldwater campaign.

It wasn't until after Goldwater's traumatic general-election belly-flop that the moderates extracted their revenge. They demanded the scalp of Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Dean Burch, a Goldwater loyalist, and replaced him with Ohio operative Ray Bliss. That set up a key historical development: Under Bliss, the RNC began providing money and training to state and local parties. This diluted the influence of local chieftains, as had happened on the Democratic side. But, says political scientist John Kessel, instead of shifting power to voters and a diffuse set of interest groups, the effect was to concentrate it in the national party. Bliss and his successors weren't stupid, after all. What was the point of providing money and resources if it didn't buy you control?

The upshot was that, in stark contrast to 1964, the GOP increasingly had a national establishment capable of cutting the knees out from under any future insurgent. Remember George W. Bush's "firewall" in South Carolina? Well, some form of firewall — national Republicans leaning on state officials to throw their organizations behind a candidate, out-of-town moneymen funding last minute ad buys, et cetera — has existed for a generation. The only wrinkle is that the Republican establishment itself has become more conservative over the years — the Goldwaterites couldn't be kept down forever. It has not, however, become any less establishmentarian.

Just consider the outcome of every GOP primary fight of the last 30 years. Gerald Ford beat back a challenge from Reagan in 1976 by leveraging the party apparatus on his own behalf. By 1980, conservatives had thoroughly infiltrated the establishment, and Reagan had long since paid his dues, making him a relatively uncontroversial choice. In 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush secured the nomination over Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, even though both had trounced him in Iowa. In 1996, the party basically handed Dole the nomination after Pat Buchanan roughed him up in New Hampshire. And, of course, the GOP establishment went to work for George W. Bush in 2000 after W. commemorated Dole's New Hampshire debacle by getting the snot kicked out of him there, too.

If there's one knock on Romney, then, it's not that he's a Mormon, but that he hasn't sufficiently paid his dues to unite the GOP hierarchy behind him. The combination of a fractured establishment and deep hostility from a key part of the GOP base could be a potential deal-breaker. That's why you see John McCain, the onetime frontrunner, attacking Romney as a fraud even as he largely gives Giuliani a pass.

But, in a way, McCain is missing the point. The people he has to convince aren't the people who watch debates on TV. It's the people who pal around with the candidates backstage. And they already know Romney's a fraud. They just happen to think, in the words of a certain Focus on the Family patriarch, that "he's very presidential."

By Noam Scheiber
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