Conventions aren’t just an occasion for political parties to rally around that year’s presidential ticket. They can also be a launching pad—a prime opportunity for up-and-coming politicians to make a splash on the national stage.
For many of the GOP’s current rising stars, however, the 2016 convention holds more risk than reward. Promising senators and governors from around the country who are often heralded as the future of the party are not only passing up traditionally coveted speaking slots, but avoiding Cleveland altogether for fear of the damage a divisive figure like Donald Trump could do to their brands.
“This is unlike any other convention in the past, with Trump as the nominee,” said Ryan Williams, who aided Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Some of the people who have big futures in the party may not want to speak at the convention for fear of how it may turn out.”
The initial speakers’ list rolled out last Thursday—more than a week later than Trump had promised—reflects that. While sports figures like Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White and professional golfer Natalie Gulbis secured speaking slots, young Republican officeholders such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sens. Ben Sasse and Cory Gardner, and Rep Mia Love, did not. There are far more Trumps with headline speaking slots (six) than senators (two).
To be sure, there are still plenty of prominent Republicans set to address the convention. Congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will all take their turns on stage. A handful of Trump’s former GOP primary rivals—Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker—are also scheduled to speak.
But Republicans see few unestablished names on the list with the chance to have a breakout moment. In 2004, Barack Obama, then a little-known Illinois state senator, burst onto the national scene with a rousing keynote address at the Democratic convention. Marco Rubio and Julian Castro also helped build their national profiles with well received speeches at the 2012 conventions.
While this week’s convention may lack political star power, there are still a few ambitious, up-and-coming speakers worth keeping a close eye on at Quicken Loans Arena.
Ask a Republican operative for a rising star to watch at the GOP convention, and Ernst is usually the first name to roll off the tongue. The freshman Iowa senator is new to Washington, but she’s already earned the respect of establishment and tea-party Republicans alike.
Her rural Iowa roots, as well as her military background, give the 46-year-old a compelling profile. And Ernst certainly knows how to gain attention. She first emerged on the national scene during her 2014 Senate race thanks to a memorable TV ad in which she talked about castrating hogs on her family farm.
Unlike some of her colleagues, Ernst hasn’t been afraid to support Trump. She met with the real-estate mogul earlier this month, and was considered a vice presidential prospect before taking herself out of the running. At the same time, Ernst hasn’t hesitated to distance herself from Trump when necessary. She’s criticized Trump’s comments on Muslims and women, as well as certain aspects of his foreign policy.
Even though she isn’t on the ticket this year, Republicans see Ernst as a contender to be on the GOP ticket in some form in four or eight years.
“She’s a rising star in the party,” said David Oman, an Iowa Republican who served as the finance chair for Ernst’s 2014 Senate campaign. “I believe that her future is unlimited.”
One of Ernst’s fellow members of the 2014 Senate class is another speaker Republicans will be watching in Cleveland. Cotton brings his own unique biography to the table. The Arkansas senator holds a degree from Harvard University, and served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army. At 39, he’s the youngest member of the Senate, and has quickly emerged as a favorite of national security hawks.
Like Ernst, Cotton has learned to embrace Trumpism, at least partially. He has by no means been a leading Trump surrogate, but he didn’t go the “Never Trump” route that Sasse and others did, either. As someone who’s vehemently opposed to comprehensive immigration reform, Cotton shares some common ground with Trump. On foreign policy, though, Cotton is much more hawkish than the nominee.
Cotton, who’s considered a presidential prospect in 2020 or 2024, will also be making the rounds to the early-state delegations this week. Conservative intellectuals are already impressed with him, but Cotton still needs to prove he can deliver an effective stump speech that appeals to a broader audience.
“He is so well thought of, and a brilliant guy,” said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based GOP strategist. “Not as dynamic a personality as a Joni Ernst by any means, but he certainly is a very well respected conservative.”
After Ernst and Cotton, Republicans don’t see many other rising stars on the speakers’ list. But the lone Senate candidate slated to address the convention will be one to watch.
Glenn, who’s challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, is by no means a typical Senate nominee. The 50-year-old African-American El Paso County commissioner started with almost no money and an all-volunteer campaign staff, but set himself apart from a crowded Republican field by delivering an electric speech at the state party convention. He was then quickly endorsed by Cruz, Sarah Palin, and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Still, even after he won the primary, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has refused to back Glenn.
Even though Colorado is a battleground state, Glenn is a massive underdog in his Senate contest. But he’ll find himself in a familiar situation as an obscure candidate who’s been all but written off when he takes the stage in Cleveland.
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