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Can a maverick candidate save the Republican Party?

Transforming a political party is harder than it looks.

Mitt Romney Meets With Voters After Announcing His Candidacy For Senate Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

When Mitt Romney announced that he was running for a Utah Senate seat, various corners of the anti-Trump internet gurgled with anticipation that Romney might be a source of conservative opposition to the president in Congress. Earlier this week, it looked like Romney might be having his first run-in with hardliners in the party — over access to the Utah ballot.

The Utah GOP controversy (described here in detail by McKay Coppins) seems to have faded off, but the question posed by political scientist Corrine McConnaughy is still relevant: Will we see a showdown between Romney (or some other rogue Republican) and the Trump administration, reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft’s clash over the 1912 nomination?

It’s hard to know what will happen between now and 2020, and history may not provide us much guide. In the early stages of the 2016 nomination season, Trump’s blustery, ego-driven style was occasionally compared to Theodore Roosevelt’s, even if his views and history of public service were quite different. Shortly after the 2016 election, William Adler wrote that Trump might be like Roosevelt, “in the party but not of it.”

But now that Trump is president and his brand of politics has edged closer to defining what conservative Republicanism means today, the maverick role may need to be played by someone else. There are a handful of candidates, but the emphasis right now seems to be on Romney, who also has the TR sort-of parallel of being a former party standard-bearer.

I’m not sure I can speculate on the likelihood of this showdown actually happening, either in a 2020 primary challenge or in some other intraparty fight. But I have some thoughts about the limits of the comparison and about what these kinds of “mavericks” actually do to shape their parties.

First, let’s think about the kinds of appeals that Roosevelt made back in 1912. After his overall success in the first presidential primaries, one of the main arguments for his candidacy was that he was the people’s choice and, as a result, the closest to Lincoln’s true legacy of, as Sidney Milkis describes, Lincoln’s “reverence for public opinion.”

It’s possible a modern-day TR could make an anti-Trump argument by claiming to channel the true spirit of a more measured and multifaceted Reagan conservatism. But Roosevelt’s anti-party claims were linked to his substantive objections to the power structure; he saw a direct relationship between the president (himself) and the people as not only more legitimate but also the basis for economic reforms that checked the most severe abuses of industrial capitalism.

It’s less obvious how a 21st-century Republican could link a rogue candidacy with a new policy direction. The conservative anti-partyism of recent decades — the Tea Party and Donald Trump — has been about angry outsiders and often about ideological purity. The idea of a Romney or Flake challenge seems more reminiscent of centrist anti-party candidacies like John B. Anderson or Ross Perot, which presented center-right ideas as commonsense alternatives to either party.

Both Anderson and Perot did pretty well for third-party candidates but failed to pick up any Electoral College votes. Anderson probably cut into Reagan’s 1980 majority, but it’s less likely he altered the outcome. It’s far more likely, though not certain, that Perot had an appreciable effect on the 1992 election, which brings us to the ultimate question about party splintering: the spoiler effect.

The main source of noise about an internal challenge in 2020 has come not from Romney but from John Kasich, Ohio’s governor and Trump’s unlikely rival deep into 2016. If another Republican followed the TR path, first challenging Trump for the Republican nod and then splitting off to run separately, a strong possibility is that these two candidates will split the right-leaning vote and a Democrat will become president.

This would be, of course, good news for Democrats but especially poor news for mainstream conservative Republicans. After a term or two of the other party, there’s likely to be political demand for a more distinct alternative. After eight years of a Woodrow Wilson presidency — including his handling of US involvement in World War I — the political demand was for a more conservative alternative, found in the form of Warren G. Harding. The Republican Party in the 1920s moved in the opposite direction from where Roosevelt was trying to take it in 1912.

This isn’t entirely surprising — TR biographer Aida Donald notes that his conservative colleagues were “horrified” at the economic messages of the 1912 campaign. The party in this decade turned away from state involvement in the economy and stagnated on the issue of race. In other words, Roosevelt’s maverick candidacy did the opposite of revitalizing or transforming the party.

It’s not hard to imagine this scenario playing out between, say, 2020 and 2024 or 2028. If a Democrat wins the White House, Republicans relegated to the minority seem likely to get angrier and to define themselves even more sharply against Democratic priorities.

A lot has changed in a century. But a few fundamental things seem similar. Long periods out of power leave a party thirsty for orthodoxy and core policy positions. Breakaway candidates often split the vote and keep their parties out of power. And individuals, no matter how morally correct or charismatic, have a hard time making a lasting impact on their parties without building up movements or organizations. Well, until a rogue, anti-party candidate actually becomes president.