Is Huckabee serious about a 2016 bid?

Greg Nash

Mike Huckabee is gearing up for another run for the White House — and this time, his party is paying attention.

Top advisers to the former Arkansas governor say the Republican’s flirtation with a 2016 run is real after he ultimately passed on a bid last time.

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“He’s more serious this time. He sees the environment to be better for him this time than in 2012,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Huckabee’s daughter and a senior strategist from his first presidential campaign. “It just seems so right for a lot of different reasons. I think there is a bigger opportunity this time around, and he’s very, very seriously considering a run.”

The 2008 runner-up for the nomination has been hard at work reconnecting with past supporters and building new relationships with the GOP establishment. He’s already visited Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with another trip to Iowa planned for early April. He’s made a number of high-profile speeches in recent weeks, including last week’s address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

If he does run, Huckabee would start off in a much stronger position than he did six years ago. He’s well-known by the GOP base and has even led in a number of early 2016 polls, both nationally and in early voting Iowa and South Carolina. 

The most telling indicator of his thinking is Huckabee’s decision not to renew his lucrative radio contract in order to free up his schedule for other activities. A major factor in deciding not to run last time was that he was making good money for the first time in his life. He was in the process of building an expensive house on Florida’s panhandle and wasn’t ready to give up his big paycheck at the time.

Huckabee told The Hill he made his decision to end his radio show to explore other opportunities. He’s also launching a new website, Huckabee Post, that will be a mix of politics, sports and pop culture, a sort of right-wing Huffington Post.

“I was at the point where I either had to make another three-year commitment or take the fork in the road, and to do anything other than that, I had to have that freedom,” he said Friday after taking the CPAC stage. “Who knows what it leads to? There could be a lot of options out there.”

Huckabee’s 2008 campaign didn’t flame out so much as it ran out of fuel — the cash-strapped operation made it hard for the governor to compete in South Carolina, after he won the Iowa caucuses. After a narrow loss in the Palmetto State, he didn’t have the funds to compete in the expensive Florida primary. Whether he believes he could pull together enough resources for a sustained campaign this time might ultimately be the deciding factor.

“I won’t be jumping into a pool that has no water. It’s a hard fall to the concrete,” he said.

Huckabee has been working hard to build relationships with a GOP donor class that shunned him eight years ago. He’s traveled to California and Texas for donor meetings. He has frequent meetings both in Florida, where he now lives, and in New York City, where he travels every weekend for his Fox News show.

He’s also putting in the work with Beltway Republicans. He headlined a January luncheon for the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, spoke to CPAC last week and will be in D.C. again for the annual gala of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List on Wednesday. He’ll return on March 26 to keynote a luncheon for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual fundraising event. He’s also endorsed a number of Republican incumbents facing primaries, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“It’s been a different world than in 2008, when the governor was having to fight for every penny we got our hands on. Now, GOP donors, even some that at one time didn’t see him as their first pick, they’re taking note,” said Chad Gallagher, a longtime Huckabee adviser who runs his political action committee.

Iowa and South Carolina Republicans say he could be well positioned for another run.

“He’s a first-tier candidate now,” said Des Moines-based conservative radio host Steve Deace, an influential voice in the state who backed Huckabee last time. “He’s well known; his likability numbers are off the charts.”

"The big question is whether the socially conservative, populist-leaning Huckabee can gain footing in an increasingly libertarian party. Huckabee came under sustained fire from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth in 2008, which slammed him for supporting tax increases."

The advent of the Tea Party has pushed the party further to the right, and his past support for national Common Core education standards, which he’s since backed away from, are anathema on the right.

“The only thing Mike Huckabee is going to be doing in Florida in 2016 is vacationing, because Republican primary voters won’t support a liberal with a record of repeatedly raising taxes and fees as their nominee,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told The Hill when asked about the onetime governor.

“He would be a serious contender here if he got in,” South Carolina-based GOP strategist Joel Sawyer said. “But I think social issues, to a degree, are diminishing relative to fiscal issues, even in a place like South Carolina. People are very concerned about debt, the deficit, taxes. It’s important for any candidate to establish a baseline with regard to social issues, but you’re not going to win a primary here by out-pro-lifing someone.” 

Huckabee has hit back harder on fiscal issues in recent years — in his CPAC speech he called for a flat tax and for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, along with the Southern Baptist preacher’s usual fervor on social issues. But even then, he framed his opposition in a more libertarian way, blasting government intrusion into religious freedom.

Sanders said her father will never totally appease the hard-line fiscally conservative groups — but she argued he won’t have to.

“He’s not going to change that and cater to these groups, and we need someone who can say ‘enough is enough.’ He’s not going to be pushed around. He is who he is, and you can get on board or not,” she said. “He’s got a populist message. He’s a Republican who can actually speak to the American middle class, which is something that sets him apart. The outside groups who don’t agree with him on everything aren’t going to like him much no matter what. He’s not going to change to appease them.”