The Republican Establishment’s Major Divide

The Republican establishment always rallies behind one candidate. But not this time. Results from an exclusive survey of RNC leaders.

July 10, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans for a gen­er­a­tion have fol­lowed a re­li­able blue­print in choos­ing their White House nom­in­ees. In a crowded primary, as con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates split votes, a single right-of-cen­ter con­tender—deemed “most elect­able” by the GOP elite—con­sol­id­ates the sup­port of mod­er­ates and, with the es­tab­lish­ment’s bless­ing and tac­tic­al aid, tal­lies enough del­eg­ates to se­cure the nom­in­a­tion.

Crumple up that blue­print and throw it away. Ahead of the 2016 elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tion­al Journ­al sur­vey, the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment is di­vided every which way.

We put three ques­tions to the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s 100 com­mit­tee­men and wo­men rep­res­ent­ing the 50 states: Whom would you vote for today? Who do you think is most likely to win the nom­in­a­tion? And who would be the best can­did­ate to take on Hil­lary Clin­ton? In in­ter­views with more than 50 of them, opin­ions on the 2016 field re­vealed a jar­ring lack of con­sensus among the party’s rul­ing class.

Their an­swers show that no one can­did­ate is poised to mono­pol­ize the struc­tur­al and in­sti­tu­tion­al sup­port that has sus­tained every re­cent Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee. This dy­nam­ic, en­hanced by the his­tor­ic size of the GOP field, threatens to pro­duce pre­cisely the scen­ario that RNC Chair­man Re­ince Priebus and his col­leagues have plot­ted to avoid: a pro­longed primary sea­son in which can­did­ates trade ugly, repu­ta­tion-crush­ing at­tacks, res­ult­ing in a months-long slog to the nom­in­a­tion.

A plur­al­ity of the RNC mem­bers sur­veyed said Jeb Bush, once be­lieved to be the party fa­vor­ite, is their most likely nom­in­ee—but only a frac­tion say they would vote for him today. Scott Walk­er would take the largest num­ber of primary votes today, yet start­lingly few say he’d make a strong gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ate. And while Marco Ru­bio is seen as an un­likely nom­in­ee, he’s also re­garded as the strongest op­pon­ent Re­pub­lic­ans could nom­in­ate to face Hil­lary Clin­ton.

These find­ings, and dozens of con­ver­sa­tions with seni­or party of­fi­cials, demon­strate a deep-rooted dis­agree­ment with­in the GOP’s gov­ern­ing body that hasn’t been vis­ible in dec­ades. A few out­liers aside, RNC mem­bers over­whelm­ingly sup­por­ted Mitt Rom­ney in the 2012 primary. Sev­er­al even form­ally ad­vised his White House cam­paigns. The opin­ions of RNC mem­bers, which were col­lec­ted an­onym­ously to al­low for candor, are in­struct­ive be­cause they come from those in­di­vidu­als who lit­er­ally write the GOP’s rules and col­lect­ively em­body a party es­tab­lish­ment that pri­or­it­izes or­der and elect­ab­il­ity.

“I have at least three fa­vor­ites,” said one RNC com­mit­tee­man, nam­ing Ru­bio, Walk­er, and Paul.

They are part of Re­pub­lic­an tra­di­tion that has since 1980 pro­moted a “next-in-line” ap­proach. From Ron­ald Re­agan (lost the pre­vi­ous primary to Ger­ald Ford) to George H.W. Bush (Re­agan’s VP after los­ing the 1980 primary) to Bob Dole (lost to Bush) to George W. Bush (the former pres­id­ent’s son) to John Mc­Cain (lost to Bush) to Rom­ney (lost to Mc­Cain), the GOP has a defin­it­ive re­cent his­tory of el­ev­at­ing those who have paid dues or are products of the D.C. Re­pub­lic­an ma­chine—or both.

That can­did­ate was sup­posed to be Jeb Bush in 2016. A son and broth­er of the two most re­cent Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents, Bush is armed with a dyn­asty-driv­en polit­ic­al net­work, an at­tend­ant be­hemoth fun­drais­ing op­er­a­tion, and re­strained rhet­or­ic aimed at ap­peal­ing to the broad­est pos­sible cross-sec­tion of voters. Yet Bush clearly has not dis­tin­guished him­self amid a tal­en­ted field of Re­pub­lic­ans, sev­er­al of whom, in­clud­ing Walk­er and Ru­bio, are com­pet­ing for those right-of-cen­ter sup­port­ers while sim­ul­tan­eously court­ing con­ser­vat­ives.

“I have at least three fa­vor­ites,” said one RNC com­mit­tee­man, nam­ing Ru­bio, Walk­er, and Sen. Rand Paul. Asked who he ex­pects to be­come his party’s nom­in­ee, the mem­ber replied: “I have zero idea, nor does any­one. Jeb cer­tainly lost his front-run­ner status.”

In­deed, while na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers have held dis­cus­sions for months aimed at mar­shal­ing their re­sources and unit­ing be­hind a single can­did­ate in or­der to fi­nally buck tra­di­tion, it’s sud­denly the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the GOP that finds it­self di­vided. And it’s Bush whose can­did­acy stands to suf­fer the most.

The sur­vey was con­duc­ted over three weeks start­ing June 4, a bust­ling stretch that in­cluded Bush form­ally an­noun­cing his can­did­acy, South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­ans pledging to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate flag from their state­house grounds, and sev­er­al oth­er can­did­ates (in­clud­ing Walk­er and John Kasich) firm­ing up plans to launch cam­paigns in Ju­ly.

In emails and fol­low-up phone calls, we asked 100 RNC com­mit­tee­men and wo­men—two from each state—to an­swer our sur­vey. Re­sponses from 51 of them demon­strate how frag­men­ted opin­ions on the pres­id­en­tial field have already be­come.

Jeb Bush (Getty Im­ages)Nearly a third of all RNC mem­bers who re­spon­ded said they ex­pect Bush to be­come the nom­in­ee, the most of any can­did­ate, re­flect­ing some linger­ing per­cep­tion of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity. “People are des­per­ate for lead­er­ship,” one Bush sup­port­er said. “They’d vote for At­tila the Hun look­ing for a com­pet­ent man­ager of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.”

But the en­thu­si­asm gap is telling: That fig­ure in­cludes a num­ber of com­mit­tee mem­bers who seem resigned to, not ex­cited by, the pos­sib­il­ity of Bush. The vast ma­jor­ity of those who said they ex­pect Bush to win the nom­in­a­tion also said they wouldn’t vote for him as of today.  Nearly as many re­spond­ents said they were con­sid­er­ing vot­ing for Kasich as for Bush.

Bush’s fun­drais­ing, though, has been a power­ful sig­nal to those RNC mem­bers about the dir­ec­tion of the 2016 cam­paign. “I hate to say it’ll be Jeb, but the money will be a gi­gant­ic factor. And I know they’re just put­ting up wood like crazy right now,” said one re­spond­ent, echo­ing com­ments by sev­er­al oth­ers.

Bush also has the ad­vant­age of step­ping onto a polit­ic­al found­a­tion that ex­tends bey­ond fin­ances and has been build­ing for dec­ades. “He’s the best or­gan­ized, he’ll be the best fun­ded, he has the best Ro­lo­dex, and for a lot of reas­ons, in­clud­ing the fam­ily ex­per­i­ence, he will be less likely to put a foot wrong,” said an­oth­er RNC mem­ber.

Still, Bush isn’t seen as a sure thing, even with­in the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment’s in­ner sanc­tum. Walk­er is close be­hind, with one-fifth of the sur­vey re­spond­ents say­ing they think the Wis­con­sin gov­ernor is the most likely nom­in­ee. While some of Walk­er’s policy po­s­i­tions, such as his views on im­mig­ra­tion or his push for a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that would ban same-sex mar­riage, have ruffled Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates, the gov­ernor is per­ceived as the can­did­ate most able to rally both wings of the GOP be­hind him.

“I think Scott Walk­er will ap­peal to the broad­est spec­trum of Re­pub­lic­ans vot­ing in our primary,” one RNC mem­ber emailed. “He doesn’t carry the Bush ‘bag­gage,’ and I think he is per­ceived as be­ing more con­ser­vat­ive than Jeb Bush.” An­oth­er mem­ber, one who does not plan to vote for Walk­er, agreed: “Every fac­tion wants a cer­tain type of per­son, and I think he has a lot of those dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­ist­ics.”

Walk­er simply comes from a dif­fer­ent place than Bush, too. While some see Walk­er’s lack of a col­lege de­gree as a li­ab­il­ity—he left Mar­quette Uni­versity to start a ca­reer be­fore he gradu­ated—about half of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters sim­il­arly lack a de­gree, ac­cord­ing to exit polls from 2012. “He is an av­er­age Amer­ic­an in so many ways,” one RNC mem­ber re­spon­ded. “This gives hope to the middle class and to the down­trod­den. “… People can re­late to this man.”

After Bush and Walk­er, the sup­port of RNC mem­bers is scattered among a hand­ful of oth­er po­ten­tial nom­in­ees.

But the re­sponses on an­oth­er sur­vey ques­tion fore­shad­ow an is­sue that might grow in im­port­ance to Re­pub­lic­an voters and power brokers in the com­ing months: Which of these can­did­ates can best take on Hil­lary Clin­ton?

While Ru­bio was ba­sic­ally an as­ter­isk in the re­sponses to the first two ques­tions of our sur­vey—al­most no one sees him as the single-most-likely can­did­ate to win the nom­in­a­tion—the sen­at­or from Flor­ida was most likely to be named the GOP’s best op­tion against Clin­ton, just ahead of Bush.

“He’s in­clus­ive and can reach mil­lions of voters Rom­ney could not,” said one com­mit­tee mem­ber who nev­er­the­less voiced sup­port for a dif­fer­ent can­did­ate.

Cer­tainly, Clin­ton looms over the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­at­ing con­test, not least be­cause of her fun­drais­ing po­ten­tial and built-in tac­tic­al ad­vant­ages. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of re­spond­ents pre­dicted that any of the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates run­ning could de­feat Clin­ton, who has been dogged by con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing her email, Benghazi, the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, and oth­er is­sues so far in 2015.

“Any of our can­did­ates will look new and fresh and can present a for­ward-look­ing, fu­ture-fo­cused nar­rat­ive against Hil­lary Clin­ton, with the ex­cep­tion of Jeb Bush,” one RNC mem­ber said. “Hil­lary is loaded up with scan­dal and bag­gage,” said an­oth­er. “I think that any Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate should stand a good chance of de­feat­ing her, if she turns out to be the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, which is not as­sured.”

One RNC com­mit­tee mem­ber who plans to vote for Fior­ina, call­ing her “the com­plete pack­age,” sug­ges­ted the field isn’t as strong as ad­vert­ised.

But as 2016 draws closer, the real­ity of Clin­ton’s strengths could make Ru­bio’s elect­ab­il­ity a big­ger selling point for the elites who re­cog­nize it now but are still con­sid­er­ing oth­er can­did­ates. “Side by side, everything from visu­al op­tics to mes­saging, he is the best con­trast to Hil­lary,” one re­spond­ent said of Ru­bio.

Bush, Walk­er, and Ru­bio garner the most sup­port among es­tab­lish­ment lead­ers, but they aren’t close to lock­ing down sup­port or clear­ing the field. When RNC com­mit­tee mem­bers were asked whom they sup­port today, three-quar­ters of re­spond­ents named a can­did­ate out­side of that trio, or said they were un­de­cided. In fact, re­spond­ents iden­ti­fied 11 dif­fer­ent can­did­ates as their first choice, and eight of those 11 re­ceived mul­tiple men­tions of sup­port, in­clud­ing Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rick Perry and Rand Paul.

One of­fi­cial named George Pa­taki, the former New York gov­ernor who barely re­gisters in polls. An un­de­cided com­mit­tee mem­ber likes both Walk­er and Ru­bio, but named Ben Car­son as first choice. A hand­ful of re­spond­ents men­tioned Carly Fior­ina when asked who would be strongest against Clin­ton. And one com­mit­tee mem­ber, asked which can­did­ate would run best in the gen­er­al elec­tion, was in­trigued by Don­ald Trump. (This came, though, be­fore Trump’s cam­paign launch fea­tured in­flam­mat­ory re­marks about Mex­ic­an im­mig­rants.)

Such tre­mend­ous splin­ter­ing of sup­port, while testi­fy­ing to the depth of the bench, also speaks to a real­ity less pleas­ant for the party: To some Re­pub­lic­ans, there is no ideal—or “most elect­able”—can­did­ate to sup­port.

One RNC com­mit­tee mem­ber who plans to vote for Fior­ina, call­ing her “the com­plete pack­age,” sug­ges­ted the field isn’t as strong as ad­vert­ised. “Wheth­er it’s Scott Walk­er and a col­lege de­gree, or Jeb Bush and the Bush name, or Christie and Bridgeg­ate, or Ru­bio and the im­mig­ra­tion plan—every­body has something.”

If these pat­terns hold, 2016 could look un­like any elec­tion in re­cent his­tory. A party whose es­tab­lish­ment wing has dom­in­ated primar­ies by identi­fy­ing and ral­ly­ing be­hind a single fa­vor­ite may struggle in light of the real­ity that there is no “next in line” —and that their once-anoin­ted fa­vor­ite, Bush, is any­thing but.

To be fair, Rick San­tor­um, the 2012 run­ner-up who won 11 states in his battle against Rom­ney, ar­gues that he’s the right­ful heir ap­par­ent in 2016. He ends a typ­ic­al stump speech by not­ing that, in the mod­ern era, Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate someone “who checks one of three boxes,” either as vice pres­id­ent, the son of a former pres­id­ent, or a can­did­ate who “came in second last time and ran again.” To pre­dict­able laughter, San­tor­um urges audi­ences to “keep that tra­di­tion rolling.”

But it doesn’t seem to be work­ing. In our in­ter­views, 15 of the 16 Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates mer­ited a men­tion from an RNC mem­ber. San­tor­um’s name nev­er came up once.

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