The republican primary campaign for the presidential nomination in 2016 will be very different from the campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Thank goodness.
In 2008 there were 21 televised debates and eventually 12 candidates on the national stage: Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Jim Gilmore, Rick Santorum, Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson, Alan Keyes, Fred Thompson, and Tom Tancredo. The crowded debate stage provided each candidate little opportunity to introduce himself, and the topics debated were often chosen by establishment-left media. Newt Gingrich refused to join the fray, comparing his reticence with that of Charles de Gaulle during the Fourth Republic refusing to engage with lesser French politicians viewed as “pygmies.”
In 2012, with 20 debates, there were only three realistic candidates: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Tim Pawlenty. When Pawlenty failed to catch fire in Iowa, he withdrew; he was, after all, running for president. The seven (some count nine) others did not have the GOP nomination as their goal. While technically running for president, they were also running to sell books or become talk show hosts, or, in the case of Ron Paul, to promote a movement within the Republican Party. Each hoped to create a wave of funding and support by winning one primary or caucus. Reluctance toward committing to Romney catapulted several of the non-contenders into frontrunner status for their 15 minutes of almost-fame.
For Republicans, 2016 has to be better. It already shows signs that it will.
Today, six men stand on the stage as unannounced but universally acknowledged candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016. Each has the capacity to fully fund a primary race from start to finish. Each has a tested political team. Each has a string of policy and political successes that dwarfs the résumés of Bush in 2000, McCain in 2008, and Romney in 2012. None has a glass jaw. Repeated political contests have tested this.
The first candidate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, took a hit with “Bridgegate” but remains standing. He has been governor for four years, contending with Democrat control of both the House and Senate. He used his veto to stop any and all threatened tax hikes. He used his bully pulpit to take on organized labor, showing Republican governors around the nation that you can fight the teachers’ union without being anti-teacher or anti-education. And while most politicians lack foresight, Christie reformed the public worker pension system to save state taxpayers $130 billion over the next 30 years. Taxpayers yet unborn will reap those savings.
Christie won re-election by a landslide. He has national name recognition and has demonstrated an ability to raise money. He can run the length of the primary season fully funded.
The second candidate is Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who, by November of this year, will have won the governorship of blue Wisconsin three times in four years. Wisconsin was the first state to allow government employees to unionize. Within three months of taking office in 2011, Walker passed legislation allowing public-sector unions to negotiate wage increases up to the inflation rate, but barring them from negotiating on pensions, benefits, or work rules. He made teacher tenure a thing of the past. Local governments saved billions using their newly won freedom to manage their workforces. Walker won a national reputation for toughness as he stood up to tens of thousands of often-violent demonstrators who actually broke into and occupied much of the state capitol for weeks. Republican donors flocked to help him defeat the union-led effort to recall him along with his lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators. While standing down the nation’s cartel of union bosses, he somehow found the time to cut tax rates, enact the state’s first “shall issue” concealed carry law, push through tort reform, and expand his state’s school choice law. By removing tens of millions of dollars of compulsory union dues from the Democrat arsenal, Walker took a reliably blue state and turned it red—or at least purple.
The third candidate, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, was elected in 2009 and again in 2013. He passed a school choice bill that now makes a scholarship or voucher of $5,000 available to up to 380,000 students in failing schools. He convinced the legislature to pass serious ethics laws banning state contracts flowing to politicians and unlimited wining and dining of the same, and requiring personal financial disclosures for most elected and appointed officials in state and local government. This might seem unremarkable in Minnesota, but it has radically changed the culture of Louisiana. It is fair to say that Jindal’s leadership has helped flip Louisiana from a blue state to a red state. Every single statewide elected official is Republican. Jindal successfully campaigned to elect pro-reform candidates to the state school board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2012, Jindal pushed for a tax reform package that would have phased out the entire state income tax. The legislature did not act on his bill, but did produce 10 bills that did much the same. Jindal would be the first Indian-American presidential nominee and could bring strong financial and voter support from this typically blue demographic.
Fourth, Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, has access to a very lucrative fundraising outlet that put two Republicans in the White House. He was a largely successful governor of Florida—a swing state and the nation’s fourth largest, soon to take over New York’s spot as the third largest. Bush never allowed a tax hike in his eight years as governor and promoted school choice initiatives. Bush’s efforts in education were less expansive than current efforts in Louisiana, Indiana, and Arkansas, but at the time they were a major breakthrough. Bush has national name recognition and a largely Reaganite track record as governor.
The fifth candidate, Rick Perry, became governor of Texas in 2001 when George W. Bush was elected to the presidency halfway through his second term. Re-elected three times, he is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He inherited a Democrat Senate in a conservative state that was not reliably Republican. But the GOP now holds every statewide office, 24 of 36 congressional seats, 63 percent of the state house, and 61 percent of the state senate. Perry can raise money in booming Texas and has national bragging rights as leader of the state that created more jobs and brought in more businesses than any other over the course of his 14 years in office. Only his poor debate showings, caused by pain medication and an early return from back surgery (he normally speaks articulately and wisely), limited his appeal in 2012.
Sixth, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is the only senator with both a national fundraising base and a loyal political following. It is difficult for any senator, let alone a junior one, to create a national fundraising network and get credit for leading on policy, as all legislative victories are by definition the work of 51 senators. Paul also benefits from the coalition built by his father’s previous two national campaigns, establishing his leadership of the growing libertarian wing of the modern GOP. Paul has built on his dad’s anti-establishment credentials since he first ran in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican nominee for Jim Bunning’s Senate seat in Kentucky. At the time, the establishment (including Mitch McConnell) supported Paul’s capable and fully conservative opponent Trey Grayson. This David over Goliath triumph gave Paul credibility among conservative activists. Since then, he has won national attention fighting Democrats, a real plus in a party full of Republicans who spend too much of their time attacking each other. Paul has championed the Reaganite realist school in foreign policy rather than the neoconservative position embraced by George W. Bush. He has also led in advancing a free-market approach to combating poverty, and has a reputation in the Senate as a team leader.
Who would dare walk onto a national stage already filled with Christie, Walker, Jindal, Bush, Perry, and Paul? Certainly no “pygmies” of yesteryear hoping to catch a wave with a win in Iowa or New Hampshire. One does note Governors Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Rick Scott of Florida as already successful leaders who might in the spring of 2015—working with their Republican-dominated legislatures—burst onto the national scene with groundbreaking new policy, leapfrogging competitors.
That prospect ought to keep today’s six giants on their toes.