It is too early to even talk about 2016. The 2014 midterms are over a year away. Yet with all the discussion about winners and losers from the partial government shutdown, Obamacare's rollout woes and POTUS's creeping lame-duck status, Chris Christie's pending reelection in New Jersey and the Clintons’ reunion tour in the Virginia Governor's race, all anyone wants to talk about is 2016. Consequently, here is my take on the current state of a potential GOP primary field.
The top tier three-cornered fight.
Governor Chris Christie. His people are reaching out to contributors around the country to say hello. He had the surgery. He has tried to mend fences with Romneyworld and has, in fact, done so with Mitt and Ann. Christie's message to Republicans is "I can win." After eight years in the wilderness, he is banking on that pitch to pull the Party together around him. With ready money from Manhattan, a supportive mainstream media, and little competition in the delegate-rich Northeast, Christie is certainly one of the early frontrunners.
Senator Rand Paul. The Senator starts with a built-in national organization inherited from his father, former Congressman and three-time presidential contender Ron Paul. The Paul activists are savvy organizers who know the rules, turn out voters—especially in the caucus states—and win elections. They do not give up. Paul has proven electoral appeal, having won a statewide election in Kentucky. His filibuster of the administration's drone policy was a conservative media sensation. He scored points with the mainstream media through his reasonable tone in the government shutdown debate. They will take him seriously, in a way they did not view his dad. That, in turn, will further motivate the libertarian Paul legions with visions of victory.
Senator Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz is a conservative star. The mainstream press doesn't like him. Neither do the Democrats. Indeed, it is reported that he has few friends in the Senate's GOP caucus. But go to any Lincoln Club or county Republican Central Committee around the country and the only guy they are talking about and love is Cruz. Cruz is the Tea Party. In the minds of party activists—the ones who go to the meetings, go door to door, and show up for rallies—Cruz is the guy who stood up to Obama and has the smarts to out-debate all of the liberal elites with one hand tied behind his back. Right now, if I were forced to pick a front-runner, it would be Cruz.
The automatic frontrunner.
Will he or won't he? If Governor Jeb Bush does throw his hat in the ring, he will become the front-runner. He is conservative, fluent in Spanish, and a leading proponent of education reform, and was a highly successful two-term governor in the critical Republican swing state of Florida. The Bush fundraising machine still exists and rivals anything that Bill and Hillary can assemble. The name is the name. A Bush has been on every winning GOP ticket since 1980. With W's poll numbers steadily rising in retirement, the Bush brand is regaining its luster. A Jeb candidacy scrambles the race in various important ways. Christie's Wall Street and New England backers will be hard pressed to contribute to him over Prescott's grandson. Governor Rick Perry's Texas contributor base will be similarly split. How many oil men will turn down a request from 41 and 43 for a contribution to a possible 45? It is also hard to imagine Jeb's protégé from Florida, Senator Marco Rubio, running against his mentor.
While the GOP has suffered in recent presidential and Senate elections, the party has been quite successful in campaigning and governing from the nation's statehouses, where it controls thirty governor’s mansions. It is for that reason that many GOP pundits believe that selecting a governor is the Party's best path back to the White House.
Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker leads the pack. His showdown with the state's labor unions and national Democratic machine resulted in a resounding recall victory and gave him a national contributor list. He is cruising toward reelection in a blue state. Walker is untainted by the government shutdown debate or other inside-the-beltway controversies, and can point to a series of balanced budgets in his home state to demonstrate his economic leadership. Ohio's Governor John Kasich boasts similar credentials and achievements in swing state Ohio, where his popularity has largely recovered from initial hits incurred in confronting public sector unions. Indiana's Governor Mike Pence cannot be counted out if he gets in the race. Prior to turning in a solid gubernatorial performance, Pence was one of the most conservative members of Congress and he previously flirted with a presidential run. He has real appeal to social conservatives, who feel somewhat ignored by other major contenders.
Heading south, Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal and Texas' Governor Rick Perry are likely candidates. Although young, Jindal has a resume that doesn't quit even if his reputation as the "smartest guy in the room" has been usurped by Cruz. Notwithstanding a tough string of GOP primary debates in 2012, Perry's Texas economic success story, massive state fundraising and delegate base, and movie-star good looks means he must be taken seriously should enter the race.