In 2002, renowned as the fixer of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, Mitt Romney returned to Massachusetts, muscled the state’s acting governor out of the governor’s race, hustled to get his hand-picked running mate onto the ticket, and won the election.
As the presumptive Republican nominee concludes his search for a vice presidential partner, the major clue from 2002 about the 2012 selection process was its demonstration of Romney’s prudent rationalism. Faced with certain political realities, he maximized his odds.
In the room with Romney back then was the same woman who is in charge of the process now: longtime aide Beth Myers. An early protégé of Karl Rove, Myers had worked in Massachusetts politics before Romney’s return and was part of the team that led Romney to make a winning pick for lieutenant governor.
Their choice was Kerry Healey, the state party chair and a failed candidate for state representative, who had helped recruit Romney to run. Healey did not arise from a deep bench of Massachusetts Republicans. At the time, the congressional delegation had been purged of Republicans and the GOP had shown an inability to win statewide offices beyond governor and lieutenant governor. Romney, who had lived in Utah while managing the Olympics, did not seem overly familiar with his choice, memorably referring to her as “Sherry” in the race’s early days.
Two highly localized factors influenced the Healey selection. One was the manner in which Romney had removed acting Gov. Jane Swift from the race. Beset by unflattering stories about her use of the trappings of office to assist her in raising her three young daughters, Swift tearfully dropped out of the race. That left Romney the sole GOP candidate, and with a bit of a woman problem.
The other dynamic was James Rappaport, a longtime Republican activist who had challenged Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 1990 and later chaired the state GOP. Rappaport, better known to Republican activists than Healey, won the endorsement of convention delegates in April and led Healey in likely Republican voter polling. In Massachusetts, primary voters pick nominees for governor and lieutenant governor separately, and Rappaport had a clear edge.
But Rappaport was perceived as too far to the right for Romney’s tastes, and his addition to the ticket would have presented voters with two white multimillionaire males hailing from tony suburbs north of Boston. To win in Massachusetts, where he had posed a stout challenge to Sen. Edward Kennedy eight years prior, Romney had confected his own centrist profile, and he needed a running mate to match.
Healey, a criminologist, fit the bill, and Romney early on announced his preference, warning Republicans that nominating Healey was “critical” to his own chances. Healey would serve as a loyal lieutenant governor — never a guarantee in Massachusetts — and ultimately wage an unsuccessful bid for the top spot in 2006, leaving a sour taste for some Republicans after her campaign adopted a harder edge in closing weeks. She remains close to Romney and advises his campaign.
The Healey choice showed that Romney, true to his venture-capital background, can recognize the political atmospherics and act on what’s necessary to overcome them — or capitalize on them. And it shows that Romney, battered by Democrats this cycle for an alleged insensitivity to women’s health, is comfortable appointing women to prominent posts. “I think that dimension of women was an important one,” Thomas Finneran, then the Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts House, told National Journal. “It was a nice way for him to play checkmate with the Democratic Party.”
Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund, who has endorsed Romney for president, said Romney “clearly wanted someone from out of the building, but also someone who had some party credentials and knew the party infrastructure, because he was coming from out of state at the time. He was a little bit removed from the inner workings of the state committee and the party. And gender had a role in it.”
Democrats ultimately nominated the state treasurer, Shannon O’Brien, herself a centrist and a favorite of the State House crowd, further enhancing the importance of having a woman on the ticket. To make sure Healey got there, Romney robo-called in advance of the party primary, and his campaign threatened to sue Rappaport when the latter touted a “Romney-Rappaport ticket” in television ads.
Finneran said Romney’s aversion to Rappaport weighed at least as strongly as the appeal of having Healey as a running mate. “I think it was probably at least as much — if I’m going to give weight to it — certainly 50/50 or maybe even more that he didn’t need the controversies of a Rappaport candidacy to deal with,” Finneran said. Republican House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, who is supporting Romney, said Rappaport “had already stepped on some toes” among state Republicans.
In that, Romney played to form: analyzing the climate — financial or political — and coolly calculating the most profitable route. Jones and others who know him say there’s no reason to think he won’t do the same in picking a vice presidential nominee.
The political considerations Romney may be weighing now include geography, gender, personal appeal, and foreign policy background. Jones compared the valuation process to judging a baseball player: “What’s more important, on-base percentage or slugging?”
There’s also the Palin factor: Sarah Palin had been governor of Alaska for less than two years when she became Republican John McCain’s ticket-mate in 2008, and she was widely judged unprepared for the spotlight and the job.
“This is a whole different set of circumstances” from 2002, Hedlund said. “Not only that, he’s going to be the leader of the free world…. The potential burden and qualifications for vice president are a little bit different from being the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”