The Republican Playing Field for 2012

An overview of the twelve Republicans who are currently in the race to take on President Barack Obama in 2012.

November’s midterm elections saw impressive gains for the Republican Party in scores of states. The party managed to win back many of the congressional seats and governorships it lost in 2006 and 2008. Indeed, the electoral map today very much resembles that of 2004 when George W. Bush won a second presidential term by a margin of some three million votes.

President Barack Obama’s approval rating remains well below 50 percent meanwhile which leaves the 2012 presidential race wide open. About a dozen Republicans are often mentioned as potential contenders for their party’s nomination for the highest office. None of them have announced to run yet.

The Old Guard

Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul represent an older generation of Republican leadership that has suddenly come in vogue again with the revival of constitutional conservatism. Whereas Paul has always championed limited government, Gingrich only more recently discovered the virtue of austerity and he has publicly been toying with the notion of running for president in 2012.

Unlike other stalwarts, Barbour has actually managed to rein in spending, not just talk about it. When he took office as governor, Mississippi had run a $709 million budget deficit for the 2004 fiscal year. Without raising taxes, Barbour cut the deficit in half, largely by reducing Medicaid spending. Two years later, when tax revenues were higher than expected, Mississippi achieved its first balanced budget in years.

Barbour, Gingrich and Paul are all pro-life but the former has worked with members of his own party as well as conservative Democrats to tighten abortion laws in his state. Mississippi currently has among the lowest of abortion rates in the country.

In June 2009, Barbour assumed the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association which has since helped elect several Republicans to governorships throughout the country and is the driving force behind the Remember November campaign. Both Barbour and Gingrich have been critical of the Obama Administration for being “secular” and “socialist” as the former Speaker of the House put it this year.

Barbour responded to rumors of a candidacy most recently on NBC’s Meet the Press where he said that he hadn’t given it any thought. “After this election is over,” he added, referring to the midterms, “we’ll sit down and see if there’s anything to think about.”

The Firebrands

A US Senator since 2005, Jim DeMint is considered one of the most conservative members of the upper chamber, supportive of school prayer, opposed to abortion and adamantly opposed to legalizing gay marriage which he frets could have “costly secondary consequences” due to the prevalence of certain diseases among homosexuals.

Mike Huckabee once, in 1992, expressed similar fears, describing homosexuality as “an aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle” that “can pose a dangerous public health risk.” Since, his opinion has shifted somewhat, urging Americans to treat gay couples with respect and framing his opposition to same-sex marriage as a wider call to the preservation of traditional marriage.

The former Arkansas governor’s economic positions are less pronounced although he once supported the FairTax, which is a proposal to eliminate all federal tax codes and replace them with a single national sales tax.

DeMint, Huckabee and Santorum all favor a great role for religion in politics. Huckabee was trained as a minister and believes in amending the Constitution according to “God’s standards” while the former Pennsylvania senator promotes intelligent design and questions evolution; is staunchly opposed to abortion and has been criticized for apparently equating homosexuality with incest and pedophilia in 2003.

Faced with electoral defeat, Santorum started comparing himself to British prime minister Winston Churchill who warned his country of the dangers of Nazism before the outbreak World War II. He described the parallels between his 2006 reelection campaign and Europe on the brink of war as “profound” and predicted that a Democratic takeover of Congress would herald “a disaster for the future of the world.” Santorum is nonetheless considered a contender for his party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

In a secularizing country where support for abortion and gay marriage is gradually increasing, this Christian triumvirate is probably unelectable on the federal level because of their antiquated religious beliefs alone. Huckabee has a favorable image among Republicans and independents but DeMint and Santorum are too radical for the mainstream in this regard.

The Fiscal Hawks

Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence have both been particularly critical of the Obama Administration’s economic policies, each criticizing its “big government” solutions to health-care and financial reform.

As Indiana governor, Daniels initiated his own health-care plan which he complains will be destroyed by Obamacare. His reputation as a fiscal conservative is solid, having turned a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus in five years as governor while managing to decrease property taxes by an average of 30 percent. By cutting red tape and overly complicated tax codes, Daniels has made Indiana more attractive to businesses and the state is currently leading in private-sector job growth.

A little up north, fellow Republican governor Tim Pawlenty, sometimes called “Minnesota’s Ronald Reagan” because he rules in a traditionally liberal state, similarly managed to balance his budget without raising taxes. The secret of his Minnesota success however — the governor’s disarming public image and ability to sell conservative policy to nonconservative voters — may well undermine his run for the presidency. The tea partiers in particular aren’t looking for a moderate candidate. His quiet evangelical Christianity on the other hand could be a boon to him unless any of the aforementioned religious zealots decides to compete and question his faith.

A pro-life Christian, Daniels, like Pawlenty, is no fanatic about it. He has suggested that the next president “call a truce on the so-called social issues,” including abortion and gay marriage. The economic and fiscal crises take precedence, he believes.

Also from Indiana and reportedly a friend of the governor’s, Congressman Mike Pence has been mentioned as a contender for the presidency as well. Pence describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” He is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia; regards Israel as one of America’s most cherished allies and cochairs the Congressional Task Force Against Anti-Semitism. Pence opposes federal funding for abortions but has avoided cozying up with social conservatives.

As an outspoken proponent of the Republicans’ halfhearted Pledge to America which was unveiled in September and contained few concrete policies on how to balance the federal budget, Pence has nonetheless defended small government policies and spoken out against tax hikes. He believes that Republicans lost heavily in 2006 and 2008, not because they compromised too little rather because they compromised too much “on key principles.”

The day after November’s midterm elections for Congress, Pence stepped down as chairman of the House Republican Conference, writing that he is considering “new opportunities to serve Indiana and our nation in the years ahead.”

The Pragmatists

Finally, there are candidates whose positions are anything but solid. Sarah Palin in particular appears rather without ideology, allowing her to spearhead the recent Tea Party movement by presenting herself as a small-government conservative. Although she is unpopular with independents and Democrats, Palin, who ran for the vice presidency in 2008, is a formidable force in the Republican camp and constantly in the national spotlight. Her endorsement for a presidential primary nominee should be meaningful therefore.

John Thune, the junior Senator for South Dakota, has been mentioned as a potential candidate for over a year. His 2004 campaign emphasized social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage as well as Thune’s support for the Iraq War. His Senate career has been largely unimpressive since but his popularity in South Dakota is so strong that in the most recent election, the Democrats didn’t even bother to put up a candidate against him.

Mitt Romney, who first sought the presidency in 2008, is a moderate in a time in American politics when moderates are ousted one at a time.

As governor of Massachusetts, he cut spending and improved the state’s financial health while enacting a health insurance reform plan that is eerily similar to Obamacare — which he nonetheless claims to oppose. Coupled with his initial, albeit reluctant support for civil unions in 2004 — only to come out against gay marriage later — and his membership of the Mormon Church, Romney is no ideal candidate for Tea Party activists nor evangelicals. Nevertheless, he is considered the Republican frontrunner by many campaign strategists and professionals and has managed to raise far more funds than any of his competitors in this race yet.