Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s public rebuke of President Donald Trump has not only opened a fissure inside the Republican Party but may complicate Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s plans to seek the presidency next year.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post and an interview on CNN last week, Romney criticized Trump for his divisive governing style, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that Americans yearn for “leaders who can unite us,” all but borrowing one of Kasich’s themes.
By doing so, analysts say Romney – the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee — has emerged as Trump’s chief Republican critic in the Senate, but may also block Kasich from mounting a challenge of his own, either in the Republican presidential primary or as an independent.
“It was never anything but a dream (for Kasich) and Romney’s positioning makes it an impossible dream,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He’s a much better fund-raiser. He’s much better looking too.”
James Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said should Trump’s presidency implode because of the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, Republicans would instinctively “turn to Romney first. He’s more predictable and he’s been there.”
By contrast, Kevin Madden, a former Romney campaign adviser, said while “it would be hard for Kasich as a former governor to establish himself on the same platform Romney has established, if Kasich were to declare himself as a candidate that would all change. He would clearly become the most direct threat to the president inside a potential Republican primary.”
In a tweet last week, Kasich told Romney, “Welcome to the fray.” But one senior Ohio Republican who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “if Romney wants to own that territory, he can take it away from Kasich. He’s got resources that exceed Kasich’s.”
During his interview with CNN, Romney dismissed the idea he would run for president, saying he was “not looking for the next election and the next spot. I haven’t decided who I’m going to endorse in 2020. I’m going to wait and see what the alternatives are.”
But Bennett, a fierce critic of Romney during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, said Romney “wants to be president so bad. Running for the Senate was just a temporary distraction. He has no interest in being in the Senate. He is using as a platform to run for president.”
At the very least, he has seamlessly occupied the space held by such Trump critics as Kasich, and retiring Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
“He’s genuinely shocked at Trump’s behavior,” Ruvolo said of Romney. “Two, at his age he didn’t want to be any other freshman senator. Before he got sworn in, he staked out a position that the press is going to run to all the time.”
Although Trump is extremely popular among Republicans, privately GOP lawmakers worry about his impulsive style, such as his threat to fire Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell and his tariffs against China and Canada.
Just last week, Trump stunned Republicans when he said “the reason” the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979 “was because terrorists were going into Russia,” adding the Soviets “were right to be there.”
In reality, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to restore a pro-Russian government in Kabul, a move that provoked an intense Cold War standoff.
In his Post opinion piece, Romney wrote the “Trump presidency made a deep descent in December” with the departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the “abandonment of allies who fight beside us,” a clear reference to the Syrian Kurds the United States has backed in that war-torn country.
Republicans also worry about the outcome of Mueller’s investigation into allegations that Trump campaign aides colluded with Russian officials to damage the 2016 presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton. By bringing out his differences with Trump, Romney is all but advertising he could be an alternative in 2020.
“If there is anyone who is thinking that right now — whether John Kasich or Mitt Romney — they are flying on instruments right now,” said Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “You can’t see the ground. The idea is that Trump will implode and render himself unelectable, then some Republican needs to be in place.”
American political history is littered with primary challenges against sitting presidents. Unhappy with the prolonged Vietnam War, Democratic Senators Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota entered the 1968 primary race against President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan nearly ousted President Gerald R. Ford for the GOP nomination while President Jimmy Carter had to survive a tough 1980 primary challenge from Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Each challenge, however, came with a big price. Carter and Ford both lost re-election bids while Johnson dropped out of the race. His chosen successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost the 1968 general election.
Romney, however, could be a formidable candidate in 2020. He ran a spirited race against Obama in 2012 and after the first presidential debate, an exuberant Borges e-mailed Kasich with the subject line, “Romney will win Ohio.”
Romney would lose Ohio by less than 200,000 votes. Privately, Romney aides blamed Kasich, saying he made no effort to help his campaign. But Borges said the “idea” that Kasich “didn’t lift a finger isn’t true.”
“Looking back at all of our roles in that process, I wish the Beltway political types brought to Ohio” for Romney’s campaign “and the Ohio political establishment had done a better job of getting along,” Borges said. “Both sides were at fault. We should have put those aside.”
“Had Mitt Romney won, we never would have been in this situation,” Borges said. “There never would have been a Trump presidency and we wouldn’t be in this crevice right now.”