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.
Out West, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez seems to be everyone's fantasy league VP first round pick. A former District Attorney, she remains incredibly popular in her blue state. Fully bilingual, with a warm personality, Martinez gave a solid speech at the RNC in Tampa. With Hillary Clinton's almost sure lock on the Democratic nomination, watch for calls for Martinez to enter the race for the top of the Republican ticket. Many party leaders dream of Mexican-American Martinez on the ticket delivering the GOP message to Hispanic voters every night on Univision and Telemundo.
2012's rising stars.
No one captured the "future nominee" buzz in 2012 like Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Paul Ryan. While Rubio has been somewhat eclipsed in the Senate by Cruz, and Ryan and is most affected by the "will Jeb run" question, there is no one in America that can give a more moving biographical speech than the Florida Senator. Unlike Cruz, who shares his Cuban heritage but speaks little Spanish, Rubio can deliver his American dream story eloquently in both English and Spanish. Coming from the delegate-rich swing state of Florida, he cannot be counted out. Ryan has a national campaign under his belt and has been more thoroughly vetted than any candidate other than Bush. He owns the budget and deficit issues, and is both respected and liked by the establishment and Tea Party. He would be a serious contender in 2016, but my guess is that we will be calling Ryan, who genuinely loves the House of Representatives, Mr. Speaker or Mr. (Ways and Means) Chairman in the not-too-distant future.
The true believers.
Social conservatives may be marginalized and ignored by the mainstream press but they remain a critical component of the GOP primary electorate, especial in the Iowa caucuses. That is why Paul is working so hard to lure them into his libertarian tent by vigorously protesting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. In 2012, social conservatives rallied in the primaries to Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, giving him a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses and propelling his candidacy in the Midwest. Everything points to a Santorum encore in 2016. He will depend on strong social conservative and evangelical support to carve out space in the crowded field. That would be almost impossible for him to do if Governor Mike Huckabee is a candidate. While he has no current organization, Huckabee doesn't need one. His third place 2008 showing combined with his years as a popular Fox News host would give him instant credibility as a candidate. Moreover, just about every evangelical church in America, including megachurches with thousands of primary voters, would immediately open their pulpits to the Governor. Hillary's candidacy plays to him as well. Huckabee likes to remind voters that he ran against and defeated the Clinton machine in his native Arkansas.
The wild cards.
Every four years, Americans flirt with the idea of electing someone who has not held elective office to go clean up the politicians' mess in Washington. Recent candidates in this mold from both parties have included the likes of Pat Robertson, Ross Perot, Herman Cain, and Ralph Nader. In 2016, the most interesting wild card is former UN Ambassador John Bolton. Bolton's plain spoken "no surrender" approach to America's role in the world has particular resonance with Republicans who will have watched eight years of President Obama's "apology tour" with dismay and distress. Bolton's brand has grown since leaving the Bush administration as Fox News has given him a national audience. Moreover, in a Republican field dominated by budget cutters, many of whom would cut Pentagon programs, Bolton's heralding of Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" platform could create a real niche for him among the national security crowd. Other wildcards could include Donald Trump, who flirted with a run in 2008 and 2012, and National Prayer Breakfast sensation and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.