Romney's Best Bet is Rubio--Not Portman--for the Veepstakes

Pajamas Media is reporting that Mitt Romney will choose Sen. Rob Portman as his veep, according to GOP insiders. A Portman pick would likely trigger (at best) an unenthusiastic conservative response, or (at worst) a conservative backlash to the Romney candidacy. Portman simply would not bring enough conservative credentials to the GOP ticket. Here’s why:

To his credit, Portman earns favorable ratings from Club for Growth, American Conservative Union and Eagle Forum, yet Marco Rubio soundly beats Portman’s scores from all three of these conservative organizations. Further, Rubio earns praise as a “Senate standout” from the ACU; Portman, on the other hand, fails to achieve “Senate Conservative” status with the ACU in 2011. 

Interestingly, National Journal ranked Rubio the 13th most conservative Senator in 2011, while Portman ranked a distant 35th, edged out by Mississippi’s Roger Wicker. While the National Journal rankings presented some puzzling findings (Rand Paul ranked 32nd; Mitch McConnell ranked 11th), overall the NJ results are pretty reasonable. For instance, Sens Murkowski and Snowe ranked 44th and 46th respectively, while Tom Coburn earned the #1 spot.

The Veep choice is always critical, because it tells Americans a lot about the thought process of a Presidential candidate, and it is really the first consequential decision a President makes. When George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate, conservatives perceived that Bush possessed a great deal of confidence in his electoral chances and that he placed a high premium on loyalty and experience. The Cheney selection was a brilliant choice in many respects. Cheney had congressional experience (10 years as the “Gentleman from Wyoming”), cabinet level experience (Defense Secretary) and business and managerial experience (CEO of Halliburton and President Ford’s Chief of Staff). With Cheney, Bush chose an able leader who could articulate conservatism eloquently, and by having no presidential ambitions of his own, eliminated the likelihood of bloody turf wars between the President’s staff and VP’s staff.

Sen. John McCain generally ran a poor Presidential campaign (e.g. deciding to suspend his campaign to deal with the TARP talks among several other missteps), but he made a good decision in choosing Gov. Sarah Palin as his veep nominee. The Palin pick was truly a game changer, breathing new life into McCain’s candidacy by galvanizing conservatives. Palin possessed all of the conservative street cred that McCain did not. McCain essentially tipped his hat to the conservative base by choosing Palin. However, the McCain campaign, plagued with indecisive, immature and insecure moderates resorted to micromanaging and muzzling the Alaska Governor, and this unfortunate development created a dysfunctional campaign environment with disastrous results.

Portman backers for the veepstakes argue he will secure Ohio for Romney. On the contrary, Romney will be poised to win both Ohio and Florida only  if he chooses a solid conservative  nominee and frames the election as a referendum on Obama. In short, Romney’s not going to win by playing defense. He must go on the attack and keep the focus on Obama’s failed presidency.

Both Ohio and Florida have tightened voter ID laws since 2008 which will reduce fraud and strengthen the integrity of the ballot box. Further, both are trending GOP. After taking a chance on Obama in 2008, Ohioans and Floridians delivered decisive wins statewide for the GOP. Look for these states to wander back into the GOP fold in November. More difficult battles for Romney likely lie in Wisconsin, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

A Rubio pick offers Mitt Romney significant advantages over a Portman selection. While Portman is an older, country-club, establishment Republican made in the image of Mitt Romney, Rubio is youthful, energetic, possesses solid conservative tea-party credentials, and he is fluent in articulating conservatism. Could Romney pick a better standard bearer for his campaign theme  “Believe in America” than Rubio? His life story is deeply moving and would be a fitting, humanizing centerpiece to the Romney narrative. While Florida is more likely to swing back to the red state column than Ohio, a Romney/Portman ticket does not guarantee Ohio moves into the win column for Romney. However, Romney/Rubio guarantees conservative enthusiasm, which is essential to Romney’s GOTV effort needed to win the Presidency. Romney could do a lot worse than Portman for veep, but he could do a lot better by selecting Marco Rubio.