Several of the Republicans planning to run in 2016 were hoping the midterms would have a winnowing effect, maybe some potential competitors would lose, or look weak. Instead, the GOP’s romp encouraged just about all of the prospects to make the leap, leaving the likely field bigger than ever.
Not only were several of the candidates bolstered by their own wins, Republican strength in the purple states of Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina made the party’s presidential nomination look very much like a prize worth having a big change from past GOP fretting that Hillary Clinton seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut.
As Republican governors gather in Florida for the first cattle call of the cycle, here’s our assessment of who is most likely to run – and who might take a pass:
- Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky… has done well in the invisible primary – fundraising, hiring, message, travel, buzz and media. Insiders tell us he has a 95 percent chance of running, with an announcement likely in April. His biggest hurdle is the pro-Israel leanings of many top GOP donors, who will have trouble accepting the recent course correction to his past skepticism of U.S. engagement abroad.
- Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas… is prime rib for the GOP base, with a brash fearlessness that gives him a good shot in the primaries and little chance in the general. Rivals admit that he could win the Iowa caucuses, though they contend he’ll burn hot but fast. Cruz has built his own mini-think tank of policy experts, and takes his Senate colleagues’ disdain for his antics as a badge of honor.
- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal… is already acting like a candidate, touting his education reforms, courting the evangelical vote by hosting a huge pastors’ conference next January, and attacking Hillary Clinton for being partisan on Ebola. In a “Meet the Press” hit on Sunday that gave a taste of his blunt rhetoric, Jindal made this claim about President Obama’s immigration plan: “[T]he president shouldn’t shut down the government so that he can break the law.” It’s over-the-top, but will play well with Jindal’s target audience.
- Texas Gov. Rick Perry… has more going for him than the “smart glasses.” He leaves office in January, freeing him to plunge into a campaign full-time. And the job-creation boom in Texas (even if he was drafting off an oil-and-gas windfall) gives him an enviable record to take on the road. Many top Republicans hope he could be a Cruz missile, taking out his fellow Texan. But these same insiders are skeptical that the “oops” moment was a total aberration.
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie… is notably svelter, had a fabulous cycle as chair of the Republican Governors Association, and tells friends that any legal peril from Bridgegate is behind him. But his recent “sit-down-and-shut-up” outburst revived the bully meme, and New Jersey finances might prove more of a hurdle than anything else. He sounds serious about running, and could make one of the more plausible cases for beating Hillary Clinton. The Iowa diner circuit will be treacherous for Christie – but entertaining to cover.
- Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida… has an experienced, savvy political team and has been boning up on national security, using his membership on the Foreign Relations Committee as a platform to gain gravitas. The immigration bill he helped push through the Senate hurt him in early-state polls, but gave him an authentic achievement – until he turned away from the issue. He might be an irresistible choice for V.P., bringing diversity and credibility to the party’s ticket. Rubio has a new book out Jan. 13, “American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone.” Look for an announcement shortly after the book tour.
- Rick Santorum … has opened a “No Obama Amnesty” website through his Patriot Voices group. He’s a favorite of the hardcore, and the former senator had a definite moment during the primaries of 2012. He has no incentive not to run, but little chance of being taken seriously.
- Dr. Ben Carson … is a popular speaker on the right, but looks more like a fundraising vehicle than a serious candidate. His ticket to ride was a tough speech at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, with President Barack Obama on the dais. During a recent meet-and-greet in D.C., Carson asked an attendee how the economy of Europe is doing. It was just chit-chat, but you need to bring a better game than that.
- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker … is coming off a 6-point romp in a reelection race that was supposed to be a nail-biter. He is underwhelming in person, but taming the unions during his recall fight gave him a national fundraising base that’s rare for a governor. Intimates tell us he’s serious about a run, and he could have his day as perceived front-runner.
- Jeb Bush … might be the toughest matchup for Hillary, and many Republican insiders who had long thought he wouldn’t run are now convinced he will. But how does he get to the general election? His 2013 plunge into private equity doesn’t look like a move by someone set on the presidency. And his stands on immigration and Common Core are disqualifying for much of the GOP primary electorate. At the very least, there’ll be a long strip tease.
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich … had a strong fiscal record in Congress, won reelection by 31 points and could take a heartland hammer to D.C. But GOP insiders say he isn’t great in small groups, a tough hurdle.
- Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio … would love to run and thinks it might be possible to get in late. He’s coming off a great cycle as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice chair for finance. But he has a potentially tough reelection in 2016. He is a favorite of wonks and centrists, who are not a large constituency in the G.O.P. primary.
- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence … bridges the evangelical and establishment wings of the party. Several of his former staffers are prominent in the Koch brothers’ network — offering the tantalizing possibility they could put big money behind him. Pence won’t make a decision until after his state’s legislative session ends in April.
- Carly Fiorina … is quietly consulting GOP strategists. There is a wide-open lane for a credible female candidate. She has the communications skills and private sector experience to earn her 15 minutes in this field – but that’s about it.
- John Bolton … is also taking a serious look. The former ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush is a hawk who will run right at Rand Paul—and his PAC has already raised a few million dollars.
- Sen. John Thune of South Dakota … is looking at it more seriously than has been reported. He’s the giant killer who unseated then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, and his state’s media bleeds into adjacent Iowa, where he is popular with evangelicals. His two daughters are grown, making a run more feasible than in the past.
- Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin … wants to be a great House Ways and Means chairman, where he could hold the pen on a rewrite of the tax code. At 44, he figures he’ll have more chances at a run when his three children are older. But if the primaries become a smashup derby with no plausible nominee, he might be sought as the savior.
- Mike Huckabee … likes to stay in the mix to keep his book sales and speaking fees up. Running for president keeps you in the mix.
- Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina … seemed to have a blast campaigning for Sen.-elect Joni Ernst in Iowa, and was quite attuned to the press coverage he got on the swing. As BFFs with Sen. John McCain, he knows the game, and seems inclined to play, at least as a favorite son in the early-voting Palmetto State.
- Mitt Romney … doesn’t want to be a three-time loser – it would be too humiliating. It’s a psychological barrier he’s not going to get over. Ain’t running.