Many Republicans with an eye on the White House in 2016 may be asking themselves “Why not run?” when pondering a presidential bid.
Their party is at a crossroads with no clear frontrunner among more than a dozen candidates, and such a fluid field offers both fresh faces and old hands their best shot at the nomination they may never get.
Families, private relationships and day jobs are all upended by a White House bid. Rising stars could diminish their stature with a disappointing performance, while re-runs may end up known in the history books not as statesmen or former senators but a multiple loser.
As R.C. Hammond, former spokesman for Newt Gingrich’s losing 2012 bid put it, with a presidential run, “you can fail as much as you can succeed.”
The Northeast Republican Leadership Conference’s 2016 straw poll last weekend included sixteen candidates, while the Conservative Political Action Conference listed 26. Almost all have either outright made their interest known or hinted at it in public and private conversations. Those numbers are sure to dwindle, but it’s among the most unsettled in recent history.
“2016 is interesting,” said Chad Gallagher, a longtime Mike Huckabee adviser who runs his political action committee. “Anytime a party has been out of the White House for eight years, it’s a time when the party should be having an appropriate conversation about who are we, and what kind of a nominee and vision we want for the party going forward.”
That conversation has been under way for the two years since Mitt Romney lost in 2012. There’s currently an opening for a libertarian candidate, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), or a social conservative leader, like Huckabee or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, or an establishment candidate, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — or any number of other breeds and brands of Republican — to make their pitch to the party.
But they won’t all run — they never do as candidates begin to face the realities of a presidential campaign and weigh the sacrifices and risks.
Paramount are the personal — the necessity of unloading not just your own skeletons from the closet but also those of your wife’s and children’s.
“A lot of the folks considering it this time around do have younger families,” said Matt Beynon, Santorum’s spokesman who also worked on his presidential bid. “[Y]ou’re not taking your children to Disney World for summer vacation — you’re gonna be going to the Iowa state fair.”
Santorum, he pointed out, saw firsthand the difficulties of campaigning with a young family when his daughter Bella was hospitalized twice during the 2012 primaries.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Cruz and others all have young families that could suffer during a long and difficult primary campaign. But they all face practical concerns as well in terms of how to support those families while they hit the trail campaigning.
Some, like Paul and Rubio, may have to choose between running for reelection for their current seats or running for president, though Paul and his allies in Kentucky are working to change that law.
Many senators and governors won’t have to make that decision, but would have to juggle the dual pressures of fundraising and keep up their current job.
Some would have to give up lucrative positions. Huckabee’s contract with Fox News would be canceled if he ran. He faced difficulty raising funds during his 2008 bid, and Gallagher said that was a significant issue for them then.
“The reality is that it’s expensive to run for president. It’s amazing the victories that Mike Huckabee put on the board without serious money,” he said. “We certainly learned that [a lack of money] makes a really big difference. It can be frustrating to try to get your message out when there are limited resources and funds to do that.”
Perhaps more troubling, however, is the potential for long-term harm to their reputations.
Hammond said he believes Cruz may have the most to lose by running since his career is still in its infancy.
“He’s the newest on the scene. He could not run for president and still be the conservative star that he is,” Hammond argued.
The national scrutiny and potential for screw-ups in a presidential primary almost assures a candidate formerly known largely by his polished, practiced fundraising dinner and Senate floor speeches could shatter his national profile.
GOP strategist Mark McKinnon suggested some the party’s youngest leaders could lose the most.
“Rising stars always run the risk of losing cachet by getting thumped. Look at Rick Perry,” he said of the Texas governor, who will always be known for his “oops” moment even if he’s largely managed to move past it.
For those who choose to run again, and run the risk of losing, again, they could emerge from a second failed run taken less seriously than before.
“I think each of them understand that you only get so many bites at the apple,” Benyon acknowledged.
But he also pointed out that Santorum’s first run has given him more experience to understand the scrutiny and the type of organization he’ll need for a successful second run.
McKinnon added of Perry: “Candidates are also generally much better once they've been around the track. Again, look at Rick Perry. He's already better.”
Historically, the GOP tends to nominate candidates that have run more than once, for precisely that reason. Though some do fall from favor, others leverage the profile they’ve built into a more prominent role — or stronger position — within the party for potential future runs.
Asked whether some candidates may suffer a diminished standing within the party, Hammond joked, “What’s the name of the guy that didn’t run for president?”
The risks are unlikely to dissuade those who have the bug anyway. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) liked to quip during his own campaign, “Presidential ambition is a disease which can only be cured by embalming fluid.”