In the past few days, much has been made in the national media about Mitt Romney being the leader among Republican presidential hopefuls — so far, at least — in the so-called invisible primary: fund-raising. With an eye-popping $20 million in his kitty, the former Massachusetts governor has raised nearly twice as much either of the other two of the “Big Three” GOP candidates for ’08, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. The figure is all the more dramatic in that it comes days after the 60-year-old Romney was tied for fourth place in the Gallup/USA Today Poll as the favorite candidate of likely Republican voters with Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who has not raised a fraction of what the Bay State man has.
All of the “oohs” and “aahs” about the clout of money this early in the nomination process reminded me of another candidate who dwarfed rivals by raising a record amount of money. In 1980, he raised more than $12 million — with inflation and cost of living adjustments, probably surpassing Romney’s $20 million today — and had substantial backing among the business community nationwide. Coming at a time when TV’s “Six Million Dollar Man” was a hit series and Lee Majors played someone endowed with super-strength, speed, and sight through the science of bionics, the joke was that this candidate was “bionic.” The former governor seemed a major player as 1979 moved into 1980.
But John Connally went nowhere. The former Texas governor and secretary of the treasury — like Romney, impressive, extremely handsome and articulate — folded early as his big dollars refused to translate into significant primary showings against Presidents-to-be Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. When he folded his political tent after losing the South Carolina primary to Reagan, the Texan had collected one national convention delegate. (Connally, of course, went on to make a much-publicized comeback from bankruptcy before his death in 1993.)
“Much would be made of the fact that I raised $12 million and landed just one delegate,” recalled Connally in his autobiography, “In History’s Shadow,” “But while the contrast was worth a chuckle, it tended to overlook the more important point: the money was more than any other candidate collected. Some must have believed in me and the programs I advocated.”
Indeed, some did believe. Many respected political figures, ranging from Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman (and later Ambassador to Italy) Peter Secchia to South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond to Mississippi’s Gov-to-be Haley Barbour rallied to the banner of newly-minted Republican Connally (he had only switched from Democrat to Republican in 1973 — admittedly at the GOP’s nadir as the Watergate scandal was brewing.)
In what may be re-echoed now at Romney’s headquarters, Connally remembered how he and his staff “were concerned that I would be labeled the candidate of Big Business. I never saw it as a liability. I wasn’t going to be their errand boy, but I wouldn’t run from them either. I have found that you can talk tough to business people and earn their respect — if you tell them what is true.” (By business, Connally explained, “I’m not referring to General Motors or AT&T. I’m talking about the chicken farmer who is my neighbor in Floresville and the trucker who hauls my cattle to market.”)
But for all the four-star support from political heavyweights and business, Connally could not put it together. As a recent convert to the GOP who had held office as a Democrat and worked closely for Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the Texan never had a strong following among those who counted most in the nomination sweepstakes: likely primary voters and delegates to state conventions. Accordingly, he tried to purchase what opponents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could get in terms of volunteer support. As Rocky the Flying Squirrel used to say, “That never works;” Connally noted that “[w]herever we had a campaign office, I found we were over-staffed and ineffective in terms of utilizing the resources we had.
“I felt like Edward Bennett Williams when he owned the Washington Redskins and had to adjust to the expensive ideas of his football coach. ‘I gave George Allen an unlimited budget,’ quipped Williams, ‘and he exceeded it.’”
Connally’s campaign never got beyond single digits in the early primaries and died after Reagan defeated him in the South Carolina primary. As said before, he got one delegate.
Is Mitt Romney the John Connally of 2000? I posed this question to veteran political operative Eddie Mahe, Connally’s national campaign manager in 1980.
“To some extent, yes,” Mahe told me, “Although let me qualify that within the context of a Texas Democrat being as alien to many primary voters as a Mormon is.”
But, Mahe quickly added, “John Connally never had to buck up and change his positions, as Romney obviously is doing now, most recently on this business of whether or not he is really a hunter. “[Connally] would never think of repudiating John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson. And he always knew what he believed in.”
Indeed, Connally suffered tremendous press criticism and the loss of a high-profile financial backer, New York lawyer Rita Hauser, when he became one of the first American politicians to voice acceptance of a Palestinian homeland back in 1979. More than a decade before Pat Buchanan, he took a line on trade that could, at the time, be dubbed protectionist. As he himself wrote at the end of his life, “I am pro-choice. I believe the government has the obligation to help create jobs. These are Democratic positions. I have never considered serving a political party as an end in itself. Serving your country is.”
A FOOTNOTE: My friend Rex Nelson, longtime Arkansas reporter and campaign manager, reminded me of that lone Connally bionic delegate: Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas. “She is no longer alive,” Nelson informed me, recalling her as “a grand lady.”