Though this election cycle was supposed to feature the most impressive field of Republican presidential candidates in decades, a handful of the party’s major donors and bundlers remain underwhelmed by their options. They are longing for the bad old days, and Mitt Romney is still their man. These holdouts continue to hope that the former Massachusetts governor, who said in January he would not run for a third time, will change his mind. They believe he could dispel the chaos that has reigned over the Republican field for months. Though they gave plenty of money to Romney’s presidential campaigns, this year they’re keeping their wallets shut, waiting for him to reenter the fray.
Dr. Greggory DeVore, who in 2012 raised more than $1 million for Romney, is one of these men. He’s even printed up Romney 2016 bumper stickers, and his black Audi S8 has two pasted on the back. “Romney 2016,” they say. “I told you so — now let’s fix it.”
“The guy was prophetic in what he saw,” DeVore says of Romney. This cycle, he says, “I cannot commit a dime to anybody because I don’t see a future.” According to DeVore, several top Romney donors are keeping their powder dry because they “recognize that the people we’ve put out are not the same caliber as a Mitt Romney.”
“They’re looking around and asking, ‘Is there anybody else to believe in?’ And the answer is no.”
Sentiments like these are bubbling up as some of the leading Republican contenders struggle with their campaign organizations and stumble on the trail. That Romney supporters, some of whom are personal friends of the family, are publicly airing their feelings right now also underscores the extent to which the rise of Donald Trump has unnerved the other candidates and thrown the race into disarray. The broader political class has been utterly dumbfounded by Trump’s continued popularity and by the success of another political outsider, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The situation has some Romney supporters envisioning a scenario in which the GOP heads into the Republican National Convention without a nominee and turns to Romney in a panic.
“We don’t think we can wait until the convention to have a convention that is in shambles,” DeVore says, “I think people need to start saying, ‘Romney, you need to get into this game.’”
For their part, establishment Republicans can’t explain the appeal of these neophyte candidates and don’t quite know how to respond to it — but they certainly wish it would disappear. The failure of several more seasoned candidates to handle these disruptive forces has hurt their campaigns and disappointed donors. Politico reported over the weekend that three top fundraisers had defected from former Florida governor Jeb Bush due to personality conflicts and questions about the strength of his campaign. The New York Times followed with a report indicating that after an initial, extraordinarily successful fundraising blitz, the campaign is straining to bring in new donors. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s response to Trump’s rise has been universally panned, and even his supporters are now saying his campaign needs a reboot.
Holdouts continue to hope that the former Massachusetts governor, who said in January he would not run for a third time, will change his mind.
Romney’s campaigns, of course, made plenty of strategic blunders. But the governor’s supporters say he is simply more skilled, in both business and politics, than any of the current GOP contenders and that subsequent events demonstrated the basic truth of much of what he said on the trail in 2012. Romney predicted, for example, that Vladimir Putin was an emerging threat and that radical Islam was on the ascent — claims that President Obama roundly mocked at the time.
“I think there are some good candidates in the field,” says Mike Hawkins, a California-based Romney bundler. “The problem is that none of them have Mr. Romney’s vision and capability and steady hand.”
It’s that steady hand that many say would bring some calm to the madness that overtook the race when Trump entered the field in June. “Mitt’s proven to be right on the critical issues and I kind of feel like Trump has turned this whole thing into a circus,” says Van Slooten.
DeVore even predicts that the Republican establishment will join his call for Romney to enter the race. “The Republican establishment, when they see this thing keep going the way it’s going, they’re going to go crazy,” he says. “They’re going to be knocking on the door and saying ‘Mitt, where are you? We need you.’ They’re going to have to drag him out.”
Since then, several of the governor’s one-time cheerleaders have joined other campaigns. One former bundler for the governor, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says the success of a potential Romney candidacy would hinge on the extent to which he could pick off donors who have already aligned with other candidates. “It’s hard to do that,” he says.
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, one of Romney’s top fundraisers, is now serving as a national finance chairman for Bush. Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who tried to get Chris Christie to run in 2011, is now solidly on board with the New Jersey governor.
Some had moved on even before Romney officially passed on a run in January. California investor William Oberndorf, who supported Romney in 2008 and 2012, urged donors who had already signed on with Bush to remain committed to him regardless of Romney’s decision: In a letter to 52 Republicans, including former secretary of state George Shultz, investor Charles Schwab, and Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, he wrote: “We are fortunate in Jeb Bush to have an extremely talented and able candidate who, I believe, has a far better prospect of winning a general election than Mitt. Moreover, Mitt has now run twice and has had his chance to be president. It is now time to cede the field to others.”
A few former Romney donors, such as Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and New York hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, have yet to back a particular candidate.
‘They’re looking around and asking, Is there anybody else to believe in? And the answer is no.’
Romney’s supporters insist the money will be there if he jumps in. “Nobody I know has opened a wallet,” says Hawkins. “There’s a lot of contribution money sitting on the sidelines right now. If Mitt even hinted that he was interested, there would be a flood of capital immediately.”
Van Slooten says he’s declined invitations to all GOP fundraisers this year but would “support a run by Mitt Romney as much as they asked.”
Others say that what they learned in 2012 is that a man like Romney, despite all of his qualifications, simply can’t win in this day and age. Frank Gooch, another Romney donor whose son worked on the governor’s finance team in 2012, says that although he thinks Romney would make the best candidate and a “tremendous, tremendous, tremendous president,” he simply doesn’t think a white male can win the general election running on a Republican ticket. He’s backing Rubio this time around, though he hasn’t invested nearly as much financially as he did four years ago.
Despite the wishes of his most ardent supporters, whether Romney will actually jump into the race is another question entirely. He is said to be watching events closely but has given no indication that he has changed his mind since declining to run in January. A spokesman for Romney did not respond to a request for comment.Hawkins puts the chances of a Romney 2016 bid at about 20 percent. And DeVore points out that in his January conference call with supporters, Romney did not entirely rule out a run. “I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind,” he said. “That seems unlikely.”
Surely, these men hope, the governor couldn’t have foreseen the rise of Trump. But the former Romney bundler is dubious. Romney is “a man of his word,” the bundler says. “He has already done his vacillation. He’s not a fly-by-night decision maker. That’s why he would have made a great president.”
Still, in the absence of anyone he thinks would make a better president, DeVore will be cruising around Southern California in his Audi, hoping its bumper stickers gin up enthusiasm.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review.