For Mitt Romney, mother’s failed run offers cautionary tale

Video: This archival campaign footage shows Lenore Romney, Mitt Romney's mother, in her 1970 campaign for U.S. Senate.

DETROIT — Mitt Romney has been busy in recent weeks conjuring up images of his family heritage here — at least a portion of it.

In TV ads and newspaper op-eds that have run in the lead-up to Tuesday’s GOP primary , he has referred to himself as a “son of Detroit.” He has reminded voters of the legacy of his father, George Romney, who remains an iconic figure in the state where he headed the American Motors Corp. and served three fondly remembered terms as governor in the 1960s.

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But the presidential candidate has mostly avoided talking about a less sterling period in the family’s political history: his mother’s ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate in 1970.

Lenore Romney’s failed bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Philip A. Hart that year caused a bitter split in the state’s Republican Party, resulted in a crushing general election defeat and, as one reporter wrote, “seemed to close the pages on the Romney chapter of Michigan political history.”

Forty-two years later, that race is largely forgotten even here in Michigan. But the experience has certainly remained with Mitt Romney, who along with his siblings campaigned throughout Michigan during her troubled run.

The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment, nor did other relatives. But his older brother, Scott Romney, told a newspaper reporter in 2007 that for all of their father’s success, their mother’s doomed race provided valuable and lasting political lessons.

“You need to define yourself, and not let others define you,” he told the Boston Globe. “And it’s no fun to lose.”

‘I am a stand-in for no one’

In early 1970, Michigan GOP leaders tried to recruit George Romney to run for the U.S. Senate in an effort to unseat Hart, a popular incumbent. Romney had resigned as the state’s governor the previous year to serve as President Richard Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development, but he remained beloved back home.

He turned down the overtures, but soon encouraged Lenore Romney, then 61, to run for the seat, even gathering family members at their Bloomfield Hills home to mull the possibility.

She had grown up in Utah, graduated from George Washington University and given up a promising Hollywood film career to raise four children and hitch her fortunes to her husband’s rising star.

Waiflike at 110 pounds, with hazel eyes, brown hair and size 7AAA shoes, she had become a well-known and eloquent speaker during her years as Michigan’s first lady. She campaigned tirelessly for her husband throughout the state, often with Mitt by her side. She spoke frequently to civic groups and did not shy from encouraging women to take a more active role in government.

“Why should women have less say than men about the great decisions facing our nation?” she said in one 1966 address, adding that women “represent a reservoir of public service which has hardly been tapped.”

But when her family and a handful of prominent Republicans pushed her to run for office in 1970, Lenore Romney at first seemed reluctant.

“I am not interested in the nomination,” she said only weeks before she began seeking it. “I am hoping deeply that they find another candidate. Nothing would please me more.”

George Romney said House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford had convinced him that Lenore Romney was capable of uniting Michigan’s disparate Republican factions.

The Romneys were not alone in thinking that she would cruise to the Republican nomination, given the family’s gold-plated name in Michigan. But the coronation didn’t go as planned.

During a gathering of state GOP leaders that February, she failed on three consecutive votes to get the 75 percent of support needed to be the party’s “consensus” candidate.

“There was a split,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, who remembers firsthand that contentious gathering. “Lenore Romney all of a sudden found herself in a cauldron of backbiting, nasty, ugly politics.”

Eventually, with support from then-governor William Milliken and the withdrawal of another would-be candidate, Lenore Romney secured her party’s official backing. But the damage had been done.

Some GOP leaders felt that George Romney had strong-armed them into embracing his wife’s candidacy and that she was simply his stand-in candidate. The Detroit Free Press wrote that many Republicans “believe that it was only because of his brutal intervention that Mrs. Romney won a carefully rigged party endorsement.”

It was a charge both Romneys repeatedly denied — “I am a stand-in for no one,” she insisted during one speech — but the perception bred resentment and haunted her throughout the race. A staunchly conservative state senator, Robert Huber, bucked the party and announced that he would challenge Lenore Romney in the primary. The bitter battle that followed sapped her campaign’s resources and further divided the state GOP.

Lenore Romney faced more than just Huber. She encountered a predominantly male press corps that often wrote about her in a paternalistic way, as if her run were little more than a housewife’s lark. She was identified in photos as Mrs. George Romney, and one headline read: “George won’t run, he’ll let Lenore do it.”

She also faced voters who never had voted for a woman, criticisms that she had no clear electoral message and relentless suspicion that she was merely a mouthpiece for her husband’s moderate policies. She also faced an angry backlash after reports that her husband was planning to use HUD funds to promote integration in Detroit’s suburbs, news that didn’t sit well with white suburban voters.

Romney won a nail-biter of a primary over Huber that August, 52 percent to 48 percent. What was supposed to be a cakewalk had become a bruising fight, and the road ahead looked only worse.

A crushing defeat

Despite an uphill battle, Lenore Romney campaigned with her trademark fervor.

She crisscrossed the state in a chartered Cessna, sometimes hitting nearly a dozen cities in a single day. She shook hands on street corners and held $100-per-plate dinners. She spoke at farm bureaus, yacht clubs and universities. She recruited volunteers in every Michigan county.

She also enlisted her four children to help blitz the state, while George Romney kept a decidedly low profile, returning to Michigan only on weekends. Mitt Romney, then a 23-year-old rising senior at Brigham Young University, visited schools and county fairs. Scott Romney, his older brother who had taken a leave from the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, wrote speeches and hit the speaking circuit himself.

Still, the perception remained that Lenore Romney had failed to offer a vision of what she intended to accomplish in the Senate. Looking back, some of her efforts did little to combat that notion.

The campaign had produced a half-hour video called “Lenore,” which portrayed her as a warm, motherly figure eager to help solve the nation’s problems. A long list of lawmakers, civic leaders and celebrities — from Gerald Ford to Art Linkletter and Bob Hope — sang her praises. Mitt Romney talked about his mother as a disciplinarian. A grandson called her “really neat.” A narrator described her as “a born doer,” “a humanitarian” and “a very special woman.” But the video left viewers to wonder about her views on key issues.

She all but avoided using the family name during the campaign — her buttons and bumper stickers read simply, “Lenore.” Her main slogan was equally ambiguous: “Never before has the voice and understanding of a concerned woman been so needed.”

Dozens of her speeches and position papers, now archived at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, reveal that she spoke in favor of measures to crack down on crime, curb the drug trade, reduce environmental pollution, increase funds for road construction and aid the nation’s poorest citizens. She called Vietnam “a senseless war” and criticized Hart as a chronic spender who was soft on crime. But her stances often were interpreted as ad hoc and her criticisms of Hart unconvincing.

“She had a hard time articulating what she was about. Nobody to this day is really sure what Lenore Romney was really for,” recalled Ballenger, the Inside Michigan Politics editor.

As charming and convincing as Lenore Romney had been during her husband’s campaigns, she simply never gained traction during her own race, said Sara Fitzgerald, whose biography of Michigan Republican activist and Romney confidante Elly Peterson recounts the 1970 struggle.

“[She] never shook the sense that she was in that role simply because she was George Romney’s wife,” Fitzgerald said. “Although she was a strong personality who had leadership strengths of her own, that kind of spin dogged her through the whole campaign and made her less effective.”

Hart, with his 3-to-1 lead in the polls, largely ignored Lenore Romney and maintained what one newspaper called a “rocking-chair pace” of few public appearances. By the end, Lenore Romney’s campaign had run out of steam, even if she had not. At one rally where 100 people were expected, 15 showed up.

“Shoppers are quick to recognize Mrs. Romney, but she has to go to them. They don’t come to her,” the Flint Journal observed. “Her speeches to luncheon clubs and at coffee parties are rarely interrupted by applause. And when the time comes for questions, the audiences have to be coaxed.”

In early November, George Romney finally campaigned at his wife’s side — 19 stops over 16 hours. He also stood by her, along with Mitt and the other children, as she gave a concession speech at 10:12 p.m. after losing to Hart in a landslide, 67 percent to 33 percent.

“I wish him every good wish,” she told the small crowd of supporters gathered inside the Detroit Hilton. “I hope all good things will be his.”

‘Experience is everything’

“Romney Chapter Appears Closed in State,” a headline in the Detroit News proclaimed the day after the election. “The Romney name that once glittered in Michigan Republican politics,” the ensuing story read, “appears to have been tarnished considerably.”

It would be three decades before another Romney prevailed in a statewide election — Scott Romney won an eight-year term to the Michigan State University board of trustees in November 2000.

Lenore Romney returned to Washington, to a stately apartment overlooking Rock Creek Park and the duties of a Cabinet member’s wife. She blamed her poor showing in part on lingering prejudice against women in politics and the reports that her husband had planned to force integration in Detroit’s suburbs.

“I found in my campaign that many men and women openly resented the fact that a woman would even try to unseat a man,” she was quoted as saying in a 1971 Look magazine article. “The rawest example of prejudice came from a farmer who told me, ‘Ma’am, we don’t vote for women or [racial epithet] in this county.’ . . . When they indicate that women have no business in politics because it’s dirty, I take exception. It’s the real world, and women have every right — and duty — to be in it.”

Mitt Romney finished his studies at BYU, earned business and law degrees at Harvard and went onto a lucrative career at Bain Capital before making his own leap into politics. Friends and family have described him as more like his mother in many ways than his force-of-nature father — more measured, more diplomatic.

But if his father’s three gubernatorial elections become a blueprint for success, his mother’s run became a cautionary tale. Having stumped for both his parents, he had experienced overwhelming victory and resounding defeat, along with a glimpse of the recipe for both.

“If there’s one thing he learned, maybe it was, ‘I’m not going to run for anything until I’m damn well ready,’ ” Ballenger said. “He is a world-class candidate compared to his own mother. It’s the difference between night and day . . . Experience is everything. He’s had a ton of experience, and she hadn’t had any.”

 
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