Last night's lesson: Romney Republicanism is alive and well

That’s according to, er, Team Romney. I’ll grant them that it’s alive, but if we’re defining “well” as losing to an incumbent by more than 100 electoral votes when unemployment is close to eight percent, we’re in deeper trouble than I thought.

Was last night a testament to Romney’s enduring influence within the GOP or was it a testament to the enduring influence of the business lobby and the GOP’s donor class, which is overwhelmingly pro-business and thus was overwhelmingly pro-Romney in 2012?

The elections featured a trio of Romney-endorsed Republicans beating back challenges from the tea party by filling their coffers with establishment cash, and appealing to electoral pragmatism. In Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson defeated his primary opponent with $4 million raised by allies like the United States Chamber of Commerce. In Pennsylvania, incumbent Rep. Bill Shuster triumphed over a challenge from the right. And in Oregon, Monica Wehby, a pro-abortion rights neurosurgeon who many Republicans have touted as a rising star, emerged victorious despite a last-minute character assault led by Democrats…

“I think Republicans are sick of losing,” said Robert O’Brien, a Romney family friend who served as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. “I think the Romney brand has had a real resurgence after the campaign, and a lot of Republicans realized, hey this guy was right about a lot of things, and they realize his endorsement carries significant weight.”

Similarly, Ryan Williams, a former Romney campaign spokesman, boasted, “Tonight was a good night for Gov. Romney and his endorsed candidates.”

He went on to add, “For too long our party has been without a powerful voice who has been able to help the most electable conservative candidates build support and raise the resources needed to navigate competitive primary contests. Governor Romney has filled that void.”

Six weeks ago, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith pronounced Jeb Bush dead on arrival in the 2016 primaries, his candidacy “a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party.” Six weeks later, BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins finds that those same people, the Romney backers of yesterday and the Bush backers of tomorrow, pretty much do still run the party. “Romney Republicanism” is really just establishment Republicanism, broadly simpatico with grassroots conservatives on their approach to the economy (fewer taxes, less regulation) but far more corporatist and culturally remote on issues like gay marriage and immigration. More than anything, these people hate what fiscal brinksmanship does to their bottom lines. I know I’m a broken record on that subject, but if you want to know why tea-party identification has dropped over the last few years, pay attention to the dip in 2011 after the first debt-ceiling standoff. The donor class will make some concessions to conservatives (e.g., pro-life as a litmus test for candidates) in the interest of keeping the coalition together, but they’re not going to stand for shutdowns and debt-ceiling standoffs that threaten their money. That, above all, is why you’re seeing the Chamber of Commerce and “Romney Republicans” coming out swinging in the primaries this year. It’s not because there’s some rich vein of nostalgia for Romneymania 2012. It’s because they want to punch tea partiers in the face for “defund” and the ensuing shutdown last fall.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Business Week marveling at Republican business owners launching GOTV efforts and voter education drives among their employees for the express purpose of beating tea-party challengers in the primaries:

The aim of the corporate coalition is to avoid the nomination of untested candidates who could hurt Republican chances of taking control of the Senate away from the Democrats in November, as happened in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to retake the chamber.

It’s also a mission to boost candidates who are better steeped in and more supportive of the business community’s agenda, including ensuring that the nation doesn’t default on its debt.

From Kentucky construction companies helping employees take on volunteer campaign jobs to company-branded websites in Idaho that allow workers to look at side-by-side comparisons of candidates on issues important to their employers, businesses are introducing a variety of political programs to engage their workers in typically low-turnout primary races.

“You never tell them how to vote, but you tell them where the candidates are on the issues that matter to their employer,” Casey said.

That’s “Romney Republicanism,” which was sufficiently “alive and well” in 2012, three years after the rise of the tea party, to propel Romney to the nomination and is sufficiently alive and well today to make amnesty for low-skilled illegal workers a live issue in the GOP House despite the base’s intense opposition. Ask yourself: If Romney Republicanism was dead, why would Jeb Bush be seriously considering running next year, Bush baggage and all? Why would Chris Christie, damaged by scandal and deeply suspect among grassroots righties, still be thinking of it? Why would Rubio, who got elected as a quasi-tea-partier, have backed amnesty and then begun to reposition himself as an establishment candidate? The answer: Because the donor class traditionally is the kingmaker of the nomination process, and there’s arguably less reason to doubt that they’ll play that role again in 2016, now that tea-party fervor has receded a bit, than there was to doubt it in 2012. That was my point in the McConnell thread last night: When these guys gear up and prepare thoroughly, they’re exceedingly hard to beat even with an unusually talented candidate like Ted Cruz. (Why do you think Cruz himself decided against going all in for Matt Bevin in Kentucky?) Romney Republicanism will be dead if/when the GOP manages to nominate and elect an ideological conservative to the presidency. Otherwise it’ll be the same old song from the donor class — ideologues can’t win, they’re an economic risk, ergo we need a steady pro-amnesty hand like Jeb Bush’s on the wheel.

Exit question: If “Romney Republicanism” is all or mostly about Mitt, why doesn’t he run again? That’s an easy way to test this hypothesis.