The first weeks of the Obama era have provided some bright spots for Republicans–a unified party and bipartisan opposition to the “stimulus” bill, three cabinet nominees exposed as uninterested in paying all of their taxes, and 17 former lobbyists granted waivers from Obama’s much-touted no-lobbyists-in-my-administration promise.
But a party can’t just count on the opposition’s fumbles; sooner or later, they’ll have to provide their own leadership–and it’s still an open question as to who the GOP’s real leaders are. Political gurus in mainstream sources like the Washington Post are compiling their lists of Republicans to watch, but recent discussions with veteran Republican strategists reveal a quite different roster of those generating buzz.
Washington Post correspondent Chris Cillizza, a consummate political junkie, cautions his list “should not be taken as a proxy for the 2012 Republican presidential race. The goal is rather to highlight ten folks who will play a major role in leading Republicans out of the electoral wilderness in which they currently find themselves.” Cillizza’s list included Ohio senatorial candidate Rob Portman, House whip Eric Cantor, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, former governor Mike Huckabee, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, and Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Cillizza’s list was shown to four GOP political consultants, identified below as A, B, C, and D. All of them have worked on Republican presidential campaigns and lower-level campaigns; they live in different parts of the country and have different specialties, including direct mail, technology, speech writing, and communications.
B: “She’s going to be a fundraising powerhouse, and we saw those huge rallies–those people weren’t there to see John McCain. Rivals underestimate her at their peril . . . But it is impossible to run for president as governor of Alaska. It’s a full time job, for starters . . . She will not change the perception about her until she changes the reality about her. She’ll be ready when she can go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney about credit derivatives.”
D: “I’m torn on Sarah Palin. I think Sarah Palin the idea was much better than Sarah Palin in practice. People want to connect on an emotional level. That’s why the ‘guy I’d like to have a beer with’ test is critical for politicians. Palin has that connection (and then some) with the GOP base. She needs to rehab her image and that means she needs to do more homework before taking her place on the national stage.”
B: “I take Jindal at his word that he’s not interested in running for office. If you want to compete in New Hampshire and Iowa, you can’t wait until 2011. And if he starts doing it now, he becomes a piñata at home. The idea of showing any interest in running before the 2016 cycle seems very risky.”
D: “I also think the jury may be out on Mike Huckabee. I don’t know if the election of the more moderate Steele to lead the party signals a more significant shift away from social conservatism and an urge for fiscal conservatism. His guy, Chip Saltsman, pulled his candidacy for lack of support. I don’t know if that sends a message to Huckabee.”
B: “I think doing his Fox show and being on television is all he really has in mind–remember, this is the guy who was still giving paid speeches while running for president. He shares the space with Sarah Palin and if she’s in, he becomes miniaturized. She’s more likable, she’s more popular, she even shoots better than him. She does his shtick better than he does.”
C: “Both Huckabee and Palin operate in same spatial bandwidth–they both have a bit of a populist vibe, blue-collar social conservative, outsider, maybe questionable issues on fiscal side, definitely evangelical camp.”
C: “A lot of people like the promise of Cantor.” He added that Cantor looks stronger as whip after the surprise of no defections on the stimulus vote.
A: “Cantor rode the party down the rails on first bailout. They had a golden issue, and he was one of them trying to make the issue about Nancy Pelosi.”
B: “Ann’s health is a factor in what he’ll be doing in the future.” [In December, Ann Romney released a statement that she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and had undergone a lumpectomy.]
B: “If the party wants to show it’s more than the south, then the Midwestern heartland style is good place to go. But it’s hard to picture him as the guy who’s gonna overtake Obama. It’s just tough to see him outshining anybody on stage. And not to take anything away from his wins in Minnesota, but he just has no idea what it’s like to run for office nationally.”
D: “Sanford’s guy Katon Dawson was defeated in the RNC race (albeit narrowly). While South Carolina is strategically important to candidates, I get the sense the GOP at large is really looking to win in places outside the South.”
B: “He got elected to Congress in Gingrich revolution, and was one of those guys who slept in his office rather than rent an apartment, to demonstrate that he served his district, not Washington . . . He served three terms and then kept to his term-limit pledge, so he can plausibly argue that he sticks to his guns and is ‘realer’ than most conservatives. But I hear he can be abrasive and a bit of a [jerk]. . . . The governor’s office in South Carolina is designed to not have that much political power, so all he can really do is pound the podium.”
NAMES THESE CONSULTANTS WOULD ADD TO THE LIST:
Possible California Gubernatorial/Senate Candidates Meg Whitman/Carly Fiorina
B: “You’ve got two super high powered CEOs, both women, both capable of exerting their own gravitational pull. Meg’s making all the moves, while Fiorina is a little more recently expressing interest in being the candidate against [Barbara] Boxer. Each one is going to be able to raise quite a few bucks, and Whitman might be running against [California attorney general and former governor] Jerry Brown for governor. They’re both potential big stars and if you make California competitive, that makes a sea change in national politics.”
A: “I hear Whitman is more serious about running than Fiorina is. If either one wins, then yes, a win automatically makes them a major player. But I hear that as a McCain surrogate, Fiorina had terrible retail political skills. Couldn’t glad-hand a room of donors. She may have gotten better at that. I hear Whitman will be at CPAC. She would be a fiscal conservative, pro-business, pro-consumer, pro-environment Republican–she would have a good shot at this.”
Florida Governor Charlie Crist
C: “I put Crist in his own category–you just have to put him there because there’s talk of him running for the Senate. Charlie is arguably most ambitious political figure on GOP side out there, and so he’s looking to put himself in a position to run for national office in the future.”
A: “I know there are people who definitely want his name in play for the Senate seat in 2010. I hear he’s not thrilled to be running for reelection to a term-limited office seat. He has a better chance of being the moderate that the party has to listen to.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush
A: “Yes, he said he didn’t want to run for Senate, but he just casts a shadow over things–he’s just the elephant in the room in a lot of conversations. Florida still one of those three key Republican states that you have to hold onto if you want to be president. He can be kingmaker, he can have influence–everybody assumes he’ll do something, and I think he will become more involved in policy work . . . I still don’t see any Republicans who are doing as much as he did in the areas of health care and education.”
C: “I just don’t see it. Not this soon. He could have walked into the Senate seat this cycle. Nobody in the Republican Party would have challenged him in the primary, and no Democrat could have kept up with him in the general. He would have been able to walk into the Senate and instantly been one of the party’s stars. He just doesn’t want to do it.”
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan
A: “When he was leading the fight on TARP, what he said on floor, he was right, he was dead on. Yes, he was for the auto bailout, but he made the point that he’s in a 51-percent district–‘this is something I need to do–people who vote for me are losing my jobs.’ It was a rational political statement more than anything else.”
Utah Governor Jon Huntsman
C: “I know his old man is a billionaire, and so I think he has some money. Wonder how much of this seems to me there are similarities between Huntsman and Romney, and this goes well beyond religion–they’re going to tap the same donors, similar businessman background . . . they occupy a lot of similar bandwidth.”
B: “I know he had a great variety of experience and a great record prior to becoming governor. [White House staff assistant in the Reagan administration, U.S. ambassador to Singapore in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and a deputy United States trade representative] If he runs for another office, he’ll have some bucks.”
The Anti-McConnell in the Senate
A: “Someone will emerge in this role, as the tougher, more conservative guy to McConnell–Jim DeMint? Jon Cornyn? Jon Kyl? Tom Coburn? I think DeMint is in the best position, if he wants to do it.”
C: “I don’t see anyone stepping up in that role. I think you’re going to find the Republican ranks reasonably unified. Heck, when you have Olympia Snowe fervently against the bailout, you know that there are largely similar mindsets on the Republican side. The thing to remember about Coburn and DeMint is that those guys are smart at playing the game and both have mastered how the Senate works and how to do things. Even as conservatives, there’s no upside to knocking McConnell while they’re trying to stop Obama. He’s the last backstop.”
OTHER FLEETING MENTIONS
“Ed Gillespie ought to be on that list somewhere . . . If [Rudy] Giuliani jumps into the governor’s race and wins, he deserves to be on it. If Peter King runs for the Senate and wins, he deserves to be on that list. . . . How come nobody’s talking about getting Miguel Estrada to do something?”
“Watch the young guns in the Senate–John Thune, and if he wins, Portman. Right now he’s seen as a Bush guy, but everyone seems to think he’s a big ideas guy who can really do big things.”
Unmentioned: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Gen. David Petraeus.
“This is a hopeful sign,” said consultant A when I noted Petraeus was not yet mentioned. “Republicans tend to fall in love with whoever is the popular military figure of the moment–[Norman] Schwarzkopf, [Colin] Powell. . . . Remember, there were efforts to recruit Tommy Franks and Peter Pace. If these guys want to be elected to high office, they have to earn it–a guy like Petraeus deserves the country’s gratitude, but if he wants a vote, he’s got to make clear where he stands.”