The ghost of Mitt Romney 2012 looms over this year’s campaign


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he is booed after saying he will repeal "Obamacare" at the NAACP convention in Houston July 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Richard Carson)

There are plenty of reasons Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012, but here's a big one: the brutally effective campaign to paint him as a stiff, out of touch millionaire that he painfully reinforced in his infamous "47 percent" video.

The same formula that felled Romney threatens to derail some of the most promising candidates of the midterm campaign.

The latest to open himself up to Romney vintage attacks is Bruce Rauner, the Republican nominee for governor of Illinois. Rauner on Tuesday acknowledged to reporters that he belongs to an exclusive wine club that costs more than $100,000 to join. The Democratic attack ad practically writes itself.

After all, Democrats have long been eager for any chance they get to cast Rauner as the Romney of 2014. The Democratic Governors Association released a video last month tying the two together and accusing Rauner, a former private equity executive, of outsourcing jobs.

With less than nine weeks until the election, Rauner is one of a handful of top recruits running in key battleground races who are vulnerable to being tagged with the same kind of attacks Democrats lobbed at Romney in 2012. From Democrats Bruce Braley in Iowa and Sean Eldridge in New York to Republicans Rauner and David Perdue in Georgia, history could repeat itself in some of the most pivotal contests of the election cycle.

In the case of Rauner, viewed widely as the Republican with the best chance of unseating a Democratic governor, Democrats have been trying to build a he's-just-like-Mitt narrative for months. Rauner, who made more than $50 million in 2013, has unintentionally fueled their attacks with head-scratching comments like the one he offered to the Chicago Sun-Times in March to describe his wealth: "Oh, I’m probably .01 percent."

In the Georgia Senate race, the parallels to 2012 are hard to miss. Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn recently ran an ad accusing Perdue, the former chief executive of Dollar General, of profiting off others' misfortunes. The firm that produced the ads crafted strikingly similar anti-Romney commercials for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.

It's not just Republicans getting stung by Romney-style broadsides. To wit: Braley. He's not a mega-rich businessman like Perdue or Rauner. But like Romney, he was caught on camera making comments that instantly raised questions about how tone deaf he was to the lives of everyday Iowans.

In March, footage of Braley, a lawyer and congressman, disparaging Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) as a "farmer from Iowa" at a private fundraiser became his version of Romney's infamous "47 percent" video. It laid the foundation for a series of GOP attacks on Braley's appeal to working class Iowa voters that have transformed what once looked like a contest that tilted Democratic into a pure tossup.

Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Democrat challenging Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), made headlines for all the wrong reasons this spring when he and his campaign dodged a Politico reporter eager to ask him questions about his investment firm.

All these examples reveal something important about 2014: Despite the all the discussion about President Obama weighing down Democrats and far-right Republicans foiling GOP candidates, personal attacks and missteps could be just as toxic on Nov. 4 -- if not more so.

If the personal complications become lethal in November, they could have far-reaching consequences. There are few races as pivotal in the battle for the Senate as Iowa and Georgia. There are no Democratic governors as vulnerable as Rauner's opponent, Pat Quinn. And Gibson's race won't tilt the majority, but it's one national strategists in both parties have been eyeing for months.

No matter the larger political climate, it never bodes well for a candidate when the public perceives them as out of touch. And sometimes, as Romney learned the hard way, it's enough to sink them.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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