article

01.17.10

Mitt Romney's Man

If Scott Brown pulls off an upset in the race to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate, he may have Mitt Romney to thank. Samuel P. Jacobs on the 2012 GOP presidential hopeful's hidden hand.

There are a number of forces driving Republican Scott Brown’s surprising surge in the Massachusetts special Senate election campaign. He’s benefiting from public anger over the Obama administration’s health-care reform plan. He’s buoyed by a tide of cash from around the country, donated by conservatives eager to send a message by upsetting Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley. And then there’s the lackluster campaign Coakley herself has run.

From the start, Brown has been counseled by members of the Shawmut Group, a Boston-based consulting firm that acts as the Romney political brain trust in exile.

Largely overlooked in assessing Brown’s prospects: the hidden hand of Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor headlined at a fundraiser for Brown last October.  And Romney has helped Brown raise money outside the state as well. “I know Scott and how determined he is to win. I've campaigned for him, raised money on his behalf, and we're doing all we can to help him over the finish line,” Romney wrote supporters last Monday. Brown, 50, raised $1.3 million that day.

But lest anyone accuse Romney of being a Johnny-come-lately—stepping up only as Brown has vaulted from sacrificial lamb to serious threat—the 2008 presidential hopeful has lent crucial support behind the scenes from the start of Brown’s campaign. Ever since he entered the race to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Brown has been counseled by members of the Shawmut Group, a Boston-based consulting firm that acts as the Romney political brain trust in exile. Among the many Romney disciples running Brown’s campaign are Beth Myers, the campaign manager of Romney’s presidential run; Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s chief spokesman; Peter Flaherty, Romney’s “ go-to-guy for conservatives”; and Rob Cole, Romney’s 2008 deputy chairman manager. Beth Lindstrom, another player in Romney World, is working as Brown’s campaign manager. Lindstrom’s ties to Romney go back years; she started working with him in the Massachusetts State House as director of consumer affairs.

A Brown victory would be a huge upset—threatening the viability of Obama’s health-care plan and providing the GOP a burst of energy and confidence heading into the 2010 midterm elections this fall. It would also be a big boost for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Up against a populist wave on the right that favors candidates like Sarah Palin, Romney can improve his appeal and influence by gaining the loyalty of newly elected officials. And Brown is hardly the only GOP contender Romney is helping. The Hill reported in September, Romney’s followers have spread throughout the country to help candidates in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, and California. Most notable among them: Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has a stable of Romney aides helping her try to her win the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.

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Romney’s role is all the more interesting because he’s not exactly Brown’s ideological soulmate. One of the winning lines of the Brown campaign was his protestation that he can’t be tied to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. “I’m Scott Brown,” the state senator told the audience of the campaign’s only debate. “I’m from Wrentham. I drive a truck.”

Wrentham is best known for its shopping outlets. Romney, before recently decamping for New Hampshire, lived in Belmont, a tony Boston suburb, home to Harvard professors and families who send their kids to local private schools. Brown’s worked in state government since 1992; Romney made his name in private equity. Brown went to Boston College Law School, and Mitt Romney was schooled at Harvard Business School. They represent two different strands of American conservatism, or at least their New England versions.

But Romney intimates see similarities between the two.

“If you called central casting and said, ‘Give me the right candidate,’ you couldn’t get a better guy than Scott,” says Ron Kaufman, who is Massachusetts chairman of the Republican National Committee, an unofficial Brown adviser, and an adviser to Romney. Brown is married to a local newscaster and has one daughter at Syracuse; another is a former American Idol star and now plays Division I basketball at Boston College. Romney’s seemingly perfect profile—the looks, the clean-cut Mormon family—also elicited references to “ central casting.” 

“They are both happy warriors. They are both indefatigable. Both are kinds of policy wonks. Scott was very helpful to the governor with health care,” Kaufman says.

As Tuesday’s vote nears, Team Romney’s role in the Brown campaign is tumbling into the open. Talking to The Washington Post, strategist Eric Fehrnstrom trumpeted his campaign’s use of an ad featuring John F. Kennedy, Jr. and called the Coakley camp’s ensuing silence the turning point in the campaign.

“One thing it does say about Mitt is that his folks know how to run a campaign,” Kaufman says.

Democrats are not as psyched about the Romney crowd’s role in the Massachusetts special election; indeed, they’ve tried to make an issue of it. They point to his fingerprints on a negative ad about Coakley’s tax policy, paid for by an out-of-state group, the American Future Fund. The 30-second spot was produced by Larry McCarthy, who is famous for the “Willie Horton” ad. He too was a Romney hand in 2008.

“The Romney playbook is being used again,” says Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. She did not intend the comment as a compliment.

For Marsh, that playbook means a sharp turn to the right to attract support from national conservatives and what she calls “selective amnesia” about past legislative efforts or associates. Brown’s been hit by the Democrats for supporting an amendment which would have allowed hospital workers to refuse emergency conception to rape victims on account of religious beliefs. They’ve also pointed Brown’s effort to distance himself from out-of-state Tea Party groups.

Andrew Sullivan, for instance, wrote that he sees various contortions in Brown’s economic policies and found a “Romney-like cynicism” in a recent Boston Globe op-ed authored by the candidate.

The upside for Brown is that Romney’s team has a proven track record of success in statewide campaigns in the state. And that team has stayed remarkably cohesive through Romney’s post-gubernatorial career. That stands in marked contrast to the crackup John McCain’s aides went through following their losing 2008 campaign. And that, Romney supporters say, bodes well not only for Brown—but also for Romney’s White House chances in 2012.

“When you read the new book Game Change,” says the Republican strategist Kaufman, “the one thing that impresses you is how loyal the Obama folks were to their guy in a cycle where that was not the strong suit. The truth is the same with the Romney folks. They are dead loyal to their guy.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.