DETROIT – Mitt Romney’s narrow victory in Iowa earlier this month has set him up as the early primary frontrunner for the Republican nomination heading to New Hampshire. Romney has roots in Michigan, and won the GOP primary in 2008, but could that be enough for him to turn a traditionally blue state red in November?
While Mitt — who was born in Detroit in 1947 — grew up in the nearby suburb of Bloomfield Hills before moving to France for a Mormon mission, his father George Romney was CEO of the now defunct American Motors Corporation from 1954 to 1962. (Chrysler bought out American Motors in 1987.) George left AMC to run for governor, becoming the state’s first Republican governor in 14 years.
He went on to become the state’s most popular governor of the last 50 years, helping to improve Michigan’s struggling economy and infrastructure. He was one of the few remaining Republicans at the time that was an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, clashing with the establishment views of the GOP.
“It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to be able to evaluate them and I began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites,” Romney said shortly after his election in 1963.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Detroit’s Cobo Hall that same year, Romney issued a statewide proclamation and sent two representatives to the event.
Romney, whose pro-civil rights stance also went against the beliefs of Mormons at the time, marched in solidarity with blacks in Detroit in protest of the violence in Selma, Ala. In 1966, Romney won re-election by over 500,000 votes, including getting 30 percent of the black vote, the most ever by a Michigan Republican.
Romney had presidential aspirations for 1968, and was the early GOP frontrunner following his re-election. It was a series of mistakes — not unlike those his son made in 2008 — which proved to be his undoing.
“Lyndon Johnson was thought to be running and for a long time in 1967, Romney looked like the frontrunner to succeed him among Republicans,” said Jack Lessenberry, a journalism professor at Wayne State University and journalist with Michigan Public Radio. “But then, he put his foot in his mouth.”
Romney initially supported the Vietnam War, saying that it was “morally right and necessary.” However, during a television interview in Detroit on August 31, 1967, Romney reversed his position on the war and effectively ended his chances of winning the nomination.
“When I came back from Vietnam (in Nov. 1965), I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” he said. “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.”
The “brainwashing” comment spread like wildfire and ultimately led to the end of his campaign before it officially began.
“The actual substance of what he said — meaning that the generals had lied to other politicians about the progress of the war — later came to be accepted as fact,” Lessenberry said during an interview on Michigan Public Radio.
“But people were jarred by the thought of a president being brainwashed, and the movie The Manchurian Candidate was fresh in people’s minds, and people started making fun of him. The national press felt that Romney, in some ways, was too square and too provincial to prevail on a national stage and Richard Nixon was the candidate of the more conservative element of the Republican Party. As for Romney’s campaign, the air went out of it like a hot air balloon.”
For Mitt, his personality could not be more different from his father’s as Republicans and Democrats alike often criticize him for his constant changing of positions and lack of charisma. Through it all, Mitt has become the Republican frontrunner, whether many in the GOP like it or not.
“I think Mitt Romney was so marked by (his father’s failed campaign) that he was determined not to make some verbal slip that would cast his campaign into jeopardy,” Lessenberry said. “He’s certainly absorbed the lesson that you have to watch what you say.”
As for his home state of Michigan, which a Republican has not carried since George H.W. Bush won it in 1988, Mitt will have a lot of work to do, as he is not nearly as popular as his late father and the times have drastically changed. Of the state’s largest urban areas — Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw, and Flint — only Grand Rapids, in heavily conservative Western Michigan, would support Romney.
Detroit, Lansing, Saginaw, and Flint are predominantly black and heavily Democratic. Current Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is also largely unpopular in most of the state, and President Obama easily carried Michigan four years ago.
Romney won the Michigan Straw Poll in September, easily defeating then-frontrunner Rick Perry, but the major gaffe that could cost him in Michigan was his changing stance on the 2008 auto company bailouts.
“My view with regards to the bailout was that, whether it was by President Bush or by President Obama, it was the wrong way to go,” he said, during the Nov. 9 CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at Oakland University. This differed from a March 2009 interview where he expressed support for how President Obama initially handled the bailouts.
“I think a lot of people expected the president just to cave and to write a big check and hope for the better,” Romney said on CNN on March 31, 2009. “I’m glad that he’s expressing some backbone on this and saying to those guys, ‘You have to get your house in order or you guys are gone, you’ll have to go to bankruptcy.’”
Auto manufacturers have added nearly 133,000 jobs since the two companies emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. After those remarks, Michigan residents, autoworkers, politicians, and union members who felt that the bailouts saved the American auto industry — and pulled the state from financial ruin — roundly condemned Romney.
“If it had gone his way, these companies would have been liquidated,” said former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was governor during the bankruptcies and is credited with helping General Motors and Chrysler get federal assistance.
Granholm told Business Week in November that while there is still some love amongst older residents for George Romney, who passed away in 1995, his son still has a lot of work to do.
“People should take a hard look at what he’s saying now,” Granholm said. “He is the ultimate panderer-in-chief.”
For Romney to win Michigan, a state seen as pivotal to the Obama re-election effort, he will have to carve out his own niche. It will likely include having to change his approach to dealing with the largely blue-collar state.
“George Romney was scrupulously honest,” Lessenberry said. “People liked him even if they disagreed with him.
“The polls show that while Mitt Romney is the frontrunner, people have a hard time making an emotional connection with him and, of course, we tend to want that with our presidents.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith