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.

WOODBURY, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a Long Island Association luncheon with LIA President and CEO Kevin S. Law at the Crest Hollow Country Club on February 24, 2014 in Woodbury, New York. Bush is widely seen as a possible presidential contender in 2016. 
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Charlie Cook
April 3, 2014, 5 p.m.

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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