The Presidential primary season has been so late this cycle that it has felt like it almost won't happen at all. As of today, that waiting ends for Centennial State Republicans, with Mitt Romney coming to Aurora at 4:30 this afternoon, marking the first visit to Colorado by a major announced Presidential primary contender. We at the Peak thought it would be a good time to review how Romney, the winner of Colorado's 2008 caucus, stands to do this cycle.
In 2008, Mitt Romney garnered a whopping 60% of the vote, despite the fact that John McCain had already virtually locked up the nomination. There has been quite a bit of debate among Republican activists, donors and operatives about whether Romney's 2008 showing was about support for Romney or a rejection of McCain, and what that means for Romney's 2012 chances. We at the Peak think it's a mixed bag for Romney.
There is undoubtedly a significant amount of residual support for Mitt Romney in Colorado, but we doubt at this point he'll be able to repeat that clear and convincing win. The fact that he won in 2008 when it didn't really matter tells us that Colorado Republicans are less likely to succumb to the national momentum that usually flips later states' primaries and caucuses towards the candidate likely to lock up their space atop the Republican ticket. In other words, conservatives in the Centennial State don't take kindly to being told what to do by Florida and South Carolina. It's a rugged Western independence thing, if you will.
A positive difference this go-round for Romney is he will have an experienced Colorado hand guiding his effort. His political director, Rich Beeson, is a longtime Colorado operative, with extensive knowledge and experience in Colorado's caucuses. Other primary candidates have Colorado connections atop their campaigns as well. One of Michele Bachmann's top advisors, Guy Short, was Marilyn Musgrave's Chief of Staff and is still based in Colorado. Tim Pawlenty employs one of the top Republican fundraisings groups in the state, the Starboard Group. His political director, Jon Seaton, was an advisor to Lang Sias's failed CD7 primary bid in 2010. So Romney won't be alone in having Colorado connections deciding strategy.
In-state experience is key in caucuses, as a campaign needs to know what local leaders don't like each other, what forums are essential to attend, and who can actually deliver votes and who just says they can. Campaigns run by outsiders don't tend to fare well here.
There is a significant amount of the state's establishment, meaning money, manpower and media, that will work to Romney's advantage. The straw poll at the State GOP meeting back in March showed that a lot of the state's top movers and shakers still support Romney. In fact, Romney's fundraiser co-hosts today and campaign co-chairs in Colorado read like a list of who's who in Colorado politics. But in a caucus, movers and shakers doesn't only encompass elected officials and high dollar donors. Almost the opposite in fact. Local liberty leaders can hold almost as much, if not more, sway than attendees at the $1,000 a plate dinners and folks with the word Honorable before their name.
Jane Norton had almost the exact same establishment boosters as Romney, and look how well it turned out for her, even in a primary. Often described as a movement focused on fiscal issues, we think the Tea Party/Liberty movement is about more than that. The Tea Party is driven in large part by the desire for authenticity. Looking back at 2010, Scott McInnis and Jane Norton struggled to connect with Tea Party and Liberty group members partly based on the fact that they seemed inauthentic — career politicians who said the right thing, not what they believed. Whether true or not, it didn't matter, because politics is perception.
That is not a good sign for Romney, as one of his biggest weaknesses is the perception that he says what's politically expedient, rather than expressing his honest view on issues. We've heard more than a little grumbling about Romney from the grassroots from everything from Romneycare to his position on climate change. These issue positions, combined with his image issues, will be major thorns in Romney's side in Colorado all the way to the caucuses.
Perhaps the biggest threat, currently, to Romney's chances in Colorado is Michele Bachmann. In 2008 there was no grassroots candidate to challenge Romney in Colorado, other than Ron Paul. That is a major change this time around. Bachmann's threat to Romney was seen most clearly in the El Paso GOP Lincoln Day Dinner straw poll. Without Bachmann, Romney was the clear winner, but when she was included his support more than halved.
Bachmann is possibly the worst possible foe for Romney, as she exemplifies his political opposite in almost every way. She is undoubtably conservative on virtually every issue and undeniably authentic in her political persona. His biggest advantage over Bachmann is the sense that he has more gravitas, but as Bachmann proved in last week's debate, that gap isn't impossible to close.
Other than Bachmann, we don't see any candidate currently positioned to be a major threat to Romney. That's not to say Pawlenty won't be able to bounce back from his "Romney attack pull back" in last week's debate, and rise to be a mainstream alternative. Nor does our analysis preclude other candidates, like Rick Perry, jumping into the race and turning the whole primary on its head. But right now, we see Colorado's caucuses being dominated by Bachmann and Romney.
We're a long way from next year's caucuses, and Romney's visit today is simply the first in a long line of contenders coming to Colorado to raise money and rally support. We think Romney positioned to do well here, if not as well as last time.