In private, especially among political types, Mitt Romney is amiable but reserved. His eldest son, Tagg, however, is amiable and outgoing, and he relishes the role of casual adviser. When Romney invited a group of reporters to his home in July 2010, it was Tagg who took the guests on a boat tour of Lake Winnipesaukee, regaling them with family stories. Romney stayed on shore, grilling cheeseburgers and relaxing with Ann. He knew his son enjoyed chatting with the Beltway insiders, and he has always trusted Tagg’s judgment.
More than two years later, Tagg continues to work as an unofficial strategist and conduit for his father. Whether it’s backstage at the debates or during Sunday-evening phone calls, Tagg is in constant contact with the Republican nominee. On paper, he doesn’t have a title beyond “surrogate,” but outside of Ann Romney, there is no one in the family who has greater influence and sway. After Romney selected Paul Ryan as veep, he tapped Tagg — not a campaign employee — to break the news to the short-list contenders.
“Tagg is reflective of his father, and I think people see that,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney adviser. “He also has the energy to fill in for his father,” which he does on a near-daily basis. Tagg is a principal at Solamere Capital, a private-equity firm, and he frequently works with his business partner, Spencer Zwick, to keep in touch with major donors. (Zwick is the campaign’s finance director.) On the political side, Tagg often chats with Peter Flaherty, his father’s longtime adviser, and Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager.
Tagg’s position in Romney World is singular because he doesn’t reside in a specific camp. Instead, he blends three Romney circles: the political team, the family, and the finance team. He is friendly with top political advisers such as Stuart Stevens and Ed Gillespie, and in interactions with low-level staffers, he is upbeat and professional. But behind the scenes, when Tagg is alone with his father and mother, he doesn’t speak for any of them. His loyalty lies only with the family, and his father listens closely to his son’s unvarnished observations.
For much of his life, Tagg, age 42, has been his father’s biggest supporter, as well as his most candid critic. At age 12, he went from idolizing his father to deciding, “in a fit of adolescent rebellion, that his father was a nerd,” Tagg recently recalled, according to the New York Times. “I think it broke his heart because he had been my hero, and all of a sudden, I didn’t want anything to do with him,” Tagg said. Ever since, he and his father have had a close bond, but Tagg has never shied away from voicing his opinion.
When Romney first ran for office, against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, Tagg had a smaller role. He graduated from Brigham Young University only a few months before the election, and Romney’s father, former Michigan governor George Romney, was still alive and influential in his son’s campaign. After Romney lost, Tagg largely avoided politics. He attended Harvard Business School, worked in the pharmaceutical business and later in marketing for Reebok and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
By the time Romney reentered the arena following the 2002 Winter Olympics, Tagg was eager to help his father. When Romney was running for governor later that year, he pushed for Kerry Healey, the state Republican chairman, to be on the ticket. He asked Tagg to guide Healey through a rough-and-tumble primary for lieutenant governor. Romney and his team had the money to hire an outside consultant, but they wanted Tagg, and Tagg helped Healey survive the primary, even after state Republicans endorsed her opponent at the state convention.
For the past decade, Tagg has been a force. According to the New York Daily News, Tagg pushed his father last year to run again for the presidency, even though many in the family were dubious about the idea. “The reason I felt strongly about it at the time was I know how good of a person he is and I know how qualified he is, and I know how big the challenges our country is facing are,” Tagg said. “I didn’t know if he could win or not, but he had to at least try.”
Lucas Bachmann, the eldest son of former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, is not surprised to see Tagg take on a prominent role. “As a son, you’re much more emotionally invested than the people on the payroll,” he says. “You are also not afraid to tell the emperor that he’s not wearing any clothes. When necessary, you can be brutally honest, and that’s something I’m sure Tagg is good at.” During the GOP primary, Bachmann says, he was impressed by Tagg’s commitment to his father’s campaign, even when things were rocky.
Former Missouri senator Jim Talent, a Romney adviser, says Tagg’s devotion is evident. “My impression is that he’s very much the oldest son in a close-knit family where Dad had to be gone a fair amount of time,” Talent says. “He has always played a stabilizing role.” After Romney lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary, “Tagg was a real brick,” Talent says. “It was a major political disappointment for the whole family, and I remember him quietly encouraging people.”
In the weeks before the first debate, Tagg was alarmed by the attacks on his father. He expressed his concern to his mother and others that the governor’s smarts and compassion were not being highlighted. He thought the campaign made a strong presentation of those attributes at the convention, but he worried that voters were not seeing the real Romney. “[Democrats] are not above making things up to make my dad look like the bad guy,” he said, in a September interview with a small New Hampshire newspaper. “They ought to be ashamed.”
For months, Tagg has kept his distance from the campaign’s day-to-day operation. He lives in Belmont, Mass., a Boston suburb, so he’s close to the action, but for the most part he has avoided meddling with the political side. In late September, as Romney’s poll numbers dipped, Tagg became more vocal, sources say. He huddled with his father, and in a Monday report, Politico dubbed Tagg’s frustrations a “family rebellion.” Campaign aides dispute that account, but several Romney sources have heard Tagg’s concerns.
Washington reporters, a Romney official says, misinterpret Tagg’s private grumbles as the crumbling of the campaign’s hierarchy, but that’s not the reality. “Tagg is someone his father relies on, as both a son and a professional,” Talent says. “I’ve watched the Romney sons for a long time, and I know they have always sought to balance their role as people who are influential with wanting to do the right thing for their dad. They have never abused their positions, and they don’t interfere with the campaign.”
As Ann Romney told me last week, Tagg may be getting headlines as an inside player, but inside of the family and the campaign, little has changed. “Tagg may have gotten a little more publicity, maybe,” she said, but Romney’s family has a long history of advocacy. He’s speaking up, to be sure, but for Tagg, at least, that’s hardly news.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.