What do Mitt Romney and Sam Houston have in common? Okay; not much…yet. But with his departure from the 2008 presidential contest, the former Massachusetts governor could pull a Houston and become the second American to serve as governor of two states. (It can’t be done, some might claim – it is too unorthodox. Like, for instance, a former First Lady of one state heading to another state than running for Senate? Or president?)
By returning to his home state of Michigan and running to succeed term-limited Democrat Jennifer Granholm in 2010, Romney has the chance to be elected and govern as a solid conservative in a state in which conservatives have excelled. The electorate remembers the 1990s as one of low and falling taxes, economic growth, and conservative leadership under three-term Governor John Engler, who left office in 2003.
One of Romney’s principal obstacles during his presidential run was the time it took for him to develop sufficient conviction — first within himself, and then within his party — that he is a conservative leader. By the time he left the race at the CPAC convention, he had clearly become a favorite of the movement, and consequently, he left the stage with the audience wanting more.
Romney’s difficulty in persuading the conservative rank-and-file that he is one of them ought not to be unexpected. He had run for Senate and then governor, in Massachusetts as a committed centrist. Moreover, he mostly governed in the Bay State as a centrist, and thus the governor had a lot of work to do with conservatives this past year. Sadly, there wasn’t sufficient time.
But Michigan isn’t Massachusetts. Having deposed a generally popular “new Democrat” governor in 1990 by one point, John Engler privatized state services, eliminated the state inheritance and capital gains taxes, and led the nationwide welfare reform movement by reducing the state rolls by 70 percent. He was rewarded with reelection by a 23-point margin in 1994 and control of both houses of the legislature. In his final term, he won by 24 points against essentially a protest Democrat, Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s lawyer. When he stepped down in 2003, Engler was the nation’s longest serving governor and, by most measures, one of the most successful conservatives ever to hold public office.
Engler’s successor, Canadian-born Democrat Jennifer Granholm, was believed by many to be the hope of the party in the state, but she has had a turbulent tenure. The auto industry is experiencing an existential crisis, and unemployment in Detroit hovers at around 10 percent. State unemployment is the highest in the nation at about 7 percent. With Engler having restored the state’s AAA bond rating, it has since fallen to AA-. In late 2007, with control of the House of Representatives but fighting a Republican-controlled Senate, Granholm pushed through a package of income and sales tax increases that have led to recall efforts against she and the legislators who supported it.
Into this challenge, enter Romney 2.0: acknowledged turnaround artist and — yes — the nation’s leading conservative politician. The Romney name still has a lot of juice in the state; the Michigan governor’s main office is in the George W. Romney building, and Romney-père remains a well-respected figure for his corporate and public service. Mitt Romney kicked off his presidential campaign one-year ago at The Henry Ford museum outside Detroit, and the high point was certainly his victory in last month’s Michigan primary.
Running and winning in a battleground state facing plenty of difficulties (and governing according to the conservative principles that he articulated with growing conviction and persuasion during this campaign) would not only be good for Michigan, but would certainly make Romney a formidable candidate for higher office. He is a young man by Reagan/McCain standards. There is plenty of time for him to claim what many of us hoped he would seize this year — the Republican nomination for president. A slight detour through the Great Lake State may be the straightest path ahead.
– Larry Di Rita is a native Michigander who is active in Republican politics.