Republicans Look for New Leader After Election Defeat

The Republican Party has a long list of possible presidential contenders for 2016.

Republican governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana speaks in New Orleans, June 27, 2011
Republican governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana speaks in New Orleans, June 27, 2011 (Marine Forces Reserve)

Republican Mitt Romney’s defeat in last week’s presidential election in the United States has opened the discussion to who might run in the party’s primary for the election of 2016. Several of the men who contested this year’s nomination may have another go at it four years from now as could a number of prominent Republicans who were urged to run or rumored to be considering to but ultimately decided against it.

After losing two presidential elections in a row with men whom many conservatives considered right of center at best, their instinct will be to push for a more reactionary candidate in the next primary election. To the extent that the party needs to nominate someone who can clearly and convincingly article Republican governing philosophy, that instinct is correct. Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney was able to reach beyond the party’s shrinking base constituency and make the case for free enterprise and limited government.

Whether the party shouldn’t moderate its positions on cultural issues is more doubtful. Denying climate change, arguing that abortion should be criminalized even for rape victims and gay partnerships not legally recognized in any way isn’t going to endear the party to middle-class and young voters who might lean right — or will, once they own a home and have a family — but are appalled by some conservatives’ uncompromising social views. The party’s hardline immigration policy, which seems more focused on keeping illegal immigrants out than getting ambitious and hardworking people in, worries especially Hispanic voters of whom 44 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2004 but just 27 percent threw their support behind Mitt Romney this year.

Jeb Bush

If Republicans decide that they have to expand their support among moderates and Hispanics in the next election, the former president Bush’s brother seems a natural choice. Jeb Bush told Univision in August, “You have to show a respect that the louder, angrier voices of the Republican Party don’t understand” in order to appeal to Hispanic voters. He won 80 percent of the Cuban vote when he ran for the governorship of Florida in 2002 as well as a majority of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote. Jeb Bush could put the state and its 29 electoral votes back in the Republican column after it twice voted to elect Barack Obama. Colorado, Nevada and possibly New Mexico could similarly be competitive again.

Bush also won considerable support from blacks — nationwide, a very Democratic constituency — with his education reform program that emphasized school choice. His staunchly conservative views on capital punishment and gun ownership should help allay right-wing concerns about his perceived centrism. Indeed, in a general election, that perception could turn against him as voters may be wary to elect a third Bush president. According to exit polls from the last election, a majority of Americans still blames George W. Bush for the country’s economic crisis.

Chris Christie

Governor Chris Christie’s steadfast fiscal conservatism in New Jersey — he erased an $11 billion deficit through spending cuts alone — and willingness to confront teachers’ unions in his state to end tenure and improve education could serve as the template for a national platform.

Even if Democrats and Republicans reach a compromise agreement on entitlements and taxes in the next four years, there will likely still be a need to do comprehensive fiscal reform for the long term. Christie has shown himself able to do so at the state level.

Republicans should also be keen to make education a national priority again when many of their governors have endeavored to finance charter schools and expand school choice. A President Christie would simply waltz over unions’ objections to limiting government’s role in education nationally.

Christie’s commonsensical approach to government, which enabled him to win the governorship of a state that has voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1988, translates into a pragmatic social conservatism: he is pro-life with exceptions and supports not marriage but civil unions for gay couples.

Jon Huntsman

The former ambassador to China was many Democrats’ favorite candidate in this year’s Republican primary race which helps explain why he made so little headway. Jon Huntsman ran as a moderate even if, certainly on economic issues, he was one of the most conservative contenders. He resigned the governorship of Utah, a deeply conservative state, in 2009 with an 80 precent approval rating, having vastly improved its business climate and schools. He cut taxes and regulations and introduced vouchers to give children from poor families the opportunity to study at private institutions.

Huntsman distanced himself from his party’s right-wing cultural positions when he ran for the nomination. While staunchly pro-life, he supported civil unions for gay couples and argued that the party shouldn’t deny climate change. “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem,” he told ABC’s This Week. He later voiced support for the DREAM Act that would have granted citizenship to children brought into the United States illegally by their parents.

In the New Hampshire primary, Huntsman did particularly well among moderates and young voters. Social conservatives will be wary if he runs again in 2016, wondering if he won’t neglect moral issues in favor of a centrist agenda, as will neoconservatives who disagree with his realistic foreign policy views.

Bobby Jindal

The popular governor of Louisiana, who won reelection with 66 percent of the vote last year, supported his fellow Southern governor Rick Perry in the last Republican primary election. The two share staunchly conservative social views. Both oppose abortion, gun control and legalization of gay marriage. Both favor limited government and enacted numerous tax cuts.

Despite strong resistance from teachers and teachers’ unions, Bobby Jindal did comprehensive education reform in Louisiana that included flexible pay and vouchers to boost performance and expand school choice. He strongly supports domestic energy production, including oil and natural gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but opposed a free-trade agreement with Central American nations.

The child of Indian immigrants, Jindal isn’t very enthusiastic about expanding immigration. He once complained that “Mexico is effectively exporting its unemployment” to the United States and insists that the southern border should be secured before there can be immigration reform.

Bob McDonnell

The governor of swing state Virginia ran as a problem solver, not an ideologue, in 2009, winning the election by an 18 percentage point margin, but has since come under fire from the left over his willingness to sign numerous laws that have restricted abortion. If Republicans hope to do better among especially single women in the next election, Bob McDonnell shouldn’t be their first choice. Social conservatives, however, will argue that they can’t make inroads in that constituency anyway.

McDonnell was more pragmatic in budget talks as Democrats controlled his state’s Senate. Through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, which were prepared by his Democratic predecessor, he managed to produce a surplus. The governor, whose term ends in two years’ time, also strongly supports charter schools and offshore drilling.

Susana Martinez

Susana Martinez became the first female Hispanic governor of New Mexico, a state that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 but has since become almost safely Democratic. She may put its five electoral votes in play again.

Martinez balanced her state’s budget and increased education funding by $100 million without raising taxes. A former district attorney, she is a crimefighter who rescinded sanctuary status for illegals in the state who committed crimes. Martinez also favors deeper trade relations with Mexico, however, and her personal background (she used to be a Democrat) could draw more Latino voters into the party.

The New Mexico governor delivered a roaring address to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in August in which forcefully articled the conservative values of limited government self-reliance. But she isn’t well know nationally yet.

Rand Paul

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul’s son and senator for Kentucky appeals to young and Tea Party voters with his calls for limited government and a noninterventionist foreign policy but it isn’t clear how he would help the Republican Party win more centrist and Hispanic votes.

In the Senate, Rand Paul has proposed deep federal spending cuts, urged the decentralization of education and opposed birthright citizenship.

Tim Pawlenty

The former Republican governor of a largely Democratic state dropped out of the Republican primary race before the Iowa caucuses in January of this year as he failed to gain traction in opinion polls. He ran as a self described “Sam’s Club Republican,” referring to the chain of retail warehouses that services mainly small businessowners, to make clear that the party cannot be perceived as elitist. “We’ve got to expand our party out,” he explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Since President Barack Obama won reelection in part thanks to support from blue-collar voters in Midwestern swing states, Tim Pawlenty would seem a credible candidate for the election of 2016. His disarming public image and ability to sell conservative policy solutions to nonconservative voters support that notion but he clearly failed to enthuse right-wing primary voters during his first try.

Pawlenty argued that his record more than made up for a perceived lack of charisma. He indeed “moved the needle dramatically on spending, on taxes, on school reform, on health-care reform from a market standpoint,” as he told Fox News last year and balanced the state’s budget without raising taxes. He succeeded in winning broad support for Republican governing positions in Minnesota but failed to make the case for Republican governing philosophy in the nominating contest.

Marco Rubio

The young Cuban American senator seems an obvious choice for the nomination if the Republican Party is to reach out to more Hispanic voters in the 2016 election. Marco Rubio still has little national political experience, however, and is a fierce social conservative. He opposes gay marriage, opposed letting gays serve openly in the military and once described letting gay foster parents raise children as an unwelcome “social experiment.”

Rubio also criticized Arizona’s stringent anti-illegal immigration measure that allows racial profiling and supports legal status for the children of migrants. Like many whose families came to the United States legally though, he opposes amnesty.

The senator’s voting record on regulations and taxes is solidly conservative and he enjoys strong Tea Party support. He will be 45 in 2016 which, if elected, would make him the third youngest president in American history, after Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate will likely remain chairman of the House’s budget committee in the new Congress and continue to play a key role in negotiations about entitlement and tax reform. Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare privatization drew criticism from Democrats but didn’t prevent him from winning reelection in Wisconsin, a state that has voted for Democratic Party presidential candidates since 1988.

While he has been a leading voice on fiscal reform, indeed, spearheaded the Republican Party’s renewed small-government conservatism, Ryan’s views on other issues, including foreign policy, are fairly boilerplate.

Ryan’s social views mirror Marco Rubio’s and he is just one-year older than the senator from Florida. Precedent doesn’t bode well for his general election chances. The last sitting congressman to be elected president was Republican James Garfield in 1880.

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum previously indicated that he might run in 2016 if Mitt Romney lost this year. He briefly emerged as a frontrunner in the primary as his strong social conservatism resonated with evangelical Christian voters in Midwestern and Southern states.

In the Senate, Santorum championed Social Security and welfare reform but he is no small-government conservative. He rejects global warming as a leftist conspiracy and would allow energy companies to “drill everywhere” for oil and gas.

Santorum argued that in a general election he would do well in the very Rust Belt states that Barack Obama carried in the last election. But he could cost the party Hispanic and middle-class voters with his anti-immigration positions and religious zeal.

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