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My Republican Bracket

In the party's presidential-nomination tournament, logic would argue for a center-right pick, but it is clear the passion has been on the right.

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Political thoroughbred: Bush(Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The extent to which the politics of the 2016 presidential nomination are already encroaching on the 2014 midterm elections is, indeed, quite something. Establishment Republicans worried about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political viability now seem to be turning their attention back to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who in turn is not exactly spurning their flirtations.

Last week's Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas—unofficially dubbed "the Sheldon Primary"—presided over by gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, provided a preview of, at least, the "Republican Establishment Bracket" within the party's presidential-nomination tournament. Present and speaking to the 400 or so prominent Republican Jewish donors were Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Bush spoke to a smaller, more elite subgroup, hosted by Adelson in his aircraft hangar.

 

Although some reports have suggested that Christie—whose presidential aspirations have taken on considerable water since the George Washington Bridge controversy—did well, his reference to Israeli "occupied territories" didn't help him any. This glitch should serve as a fair warning to other governors with presidential hopes that they should get their foreign policy lingo down before they torpedo their own potential candidacies.

While Bush has long been the first choice for many if not most establishment Republicans, some had all but given up hope that he might run; hence much of the interest in Christie, at least before his bridge flap. Bush was thought to be torn about running. He is rumored to really want to seek the presidency, seeing himself (as did others) as likely to be very good at the job, but he has been supposedly held back by family considerations—namely, that some members of his family (not just his mother) were less than enthusiastic about the idea.

Perhaps because of the vacuum created by Christie's recent stumbles, as well as other factors, speculation about Bush running has increased over the past few months. We hear from people close to his inner circle that his own interest has in fact picked up; now we are faced with maybe a one-in-three chance that he actually enters the ring. Sure, there is a lot of hand-wringing over political dynasties, but with Democrats clamoring for another Clinton, and Republicans just hoping to get a nominee who isn't politically tone-deaf, that concern might very well be overrated. Bush is a political thoroughbred; the GOP would be lucky to get him in the race. But the odds that he will run, while higher than before, still aren't great.

 

This uncertainty leaves a potential GOP field that has something for everyone. It includes an assortment of batches, some say brackets, starting with as many as four prior contenders for the nation's highest office: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Notably, Huckabee and Santorum have overlapping constituencies, and Palin will need to fight off claims of irrelevancy. Next on the list comes a pair of tea-party senators, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. These two could perhaps be followed by a neoconservative, running primarily on foreign policy themes, such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who is worried about isolationists' growing influence in the party.

Then there are at least five governors who could run: Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Kasich (Ohio), Mike Pence (Indiana), Rick Snyder (Michigan), and Walker (Wisconsin). Next up, the establishment Capitol Hill figures: Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Marco Rubio (Florida), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisconsin). Of the three, Rubio seems most likely to enter the race. Portman is more likely to seek reelection, and Ryan is more likely to keep his aspirations within the House.

Obviously, not all of these people are going to try, and still others will likely emerge. Sometimes after losing two consecutive presidential contests, parties become more pragmatic and move toward the center. Other times, they double down on ideology. Logic would argue for a GOP move toward a center-right nominee for 2016, but it is clear that the passion has been on the right; witness Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum each having been front-runners at different points last cycle, while Jon Huntsman never got a glance and the party seemed reluctant to settle on Mitt Romney.

The accuracy rate for anyone's prognostications this far out is dangerously close to zero, so caveat emptor. If Bush does run, it would seem likely that the contest would be for who would be his more conservative alternative, whether that be a member of the tea party or of the more conventional but still very conservative wing of the GOP. Beyond Bush (if he runs), I am most closely watching Paul from the tea-party side and Walker from the very conservative but not tea-party wing, while keeping an eye on Rubio as a wild card. Rubio is enormously talented, seems to have a very bright future, and appears to appeal to a wide variety of generational and demographic groups. Given the GOP's problems, it desperately needs to address its weaknesses with these key portions of the electorate.

 

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This article appears in the April 5, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as My GOP Bracket.

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