Spin Cycle

02.21.12

Mitt's Mom, Political Loser

Richard Nixon and Her Long-Ago Senate Race

Reams have been written about Mitt Romney following in the footsteps of his father, George, a former governor who ran for president. But his mother, Lenore, also had a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful political career—thanks in part to Richard Nixon.

Lenore Romney, a onetime actress, ran for a Senate seat in Michigan in 1970, taking on incumbent Democrat Phil Hart, a high-profile critic of the Nixon administration. Romney, then 61, argued that “never has the voice and understanding of a concerned woman been so needed.” She strongly backed abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

“Republicans had hoped to oust Hart by using George Romney’s demonstrated charisma to catapult Mrs. Romney into office,” the AP reported. Instead, she was crushed.

Her candidacy was something of a historical accident. After the 1968 election, Nixon had appointed his old campaign foe, George Romney, the Michigan governor, as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Nixon needed a few moderate Republicans to balance the Cabinet,” wrote John Ehrlichman, a former top aide who was later imprisoned for Watergate crimes. “What better revenge than to put Romney into a meaningless department, never to be noticed again.” (The passage is cited in the new book The Real Romney.)

But Secretary Romney pushed to integrate suburban housing, causing a political problem for his boss, and Nixon decided he wanted Romney out. His aides, according to one author, came up with the maneuver of encouraging Romney to run for the Senate. Instead, his wife, who had been Michigan’s first lady, made the race.

Lenore Romney beat a conservative state senator, Robert Huber, for the GOP nomination. But Hart beat her in a landslide, with 67 percent of the vote. The impact of that loss on her son remains unknown, as Mitt hasn’t talked much about his mom.