With Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential race Tuesday, Mitt Romney has now effectively won his party’s nod to go up against President Obama in November. But winning the Republican nomination in 2012 has required Romney to move well to the right of any GOP presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator, of course, relished what he acknowledged was the extremism of his positions. Romney, by contrast, has been compelled to become an extremist by the Republican primary electorate.
Which raises a larger question: Does winning the primary in today’s Republican Party doom the winner’s chance for taking the general election? It may well.
Since the Tea Party takeover of the GOP in 2009 and 2010, Republican voters have often either nominated candidates so far to the right that they lost winnable seats — Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — or driven mainstream conservative candidates into the fringes of right-wing fruit-cakery in order to hold their seats. In 2010, California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had planned to run as a successful, recession-fighting CEO and a social moderate — much, in fact, like Mitt Romney — in order to win in a very blue state. But to fend off a primary challenger to her right and to prevail with the right-wing GOP primary electorate, she had to oppose immigration reform, an issue she had hoped to duck. Her move rightward ensured both her primary victory and her general election double-digit defeat by Democrat Jerry Brown, despite her spending roughly $150 million of her own money on her campaign. In particular, she was never able to convince Latino voters, who backed Brown overwhelmingly, that she wasn’t hostile to their cause — or, more elementally, to them.
The United States as a whole is neither as liberal nor as Latino as California, but Romney starts his general election campaign in the same box in which Whitman found herself. In order to win the nomination, he has taken positions that have caused his favorability ratings, particularly among women and Latinos, to plummet. He may hope for an Etch a Sketch redefinition, but that will be hard to achieve. If he says anything favorable about reproductive rights, the Republican right will be all over him. If he so much as suggests he’s rethinking his position on the Dream Act, the GOP base will read him the riot act. Like Whitman, he has lashed himself to the mast of an aggrieved and wacked-out right, on a voyage going no place but down. A more deft politician might be able to extricate himself from this position. Romney is nobody’s idea of deft.