The more than half-a-dozen Republican governors running for president have been a flop on the campaign trail so far.
This week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who entered 2015 atop the primary polls, was demoted to the “happy hour” stage at the next debate, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who in 2008 won the Iowa caucuses.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, considered by many to be the nominal front-runner when he first began exploring a White House bid, recently hit reset on his struggling campaign and has moved further and further away from the center of the debate stage as his poll numbers have fallen.
From the outset, political watchers were eager to see how the competition between the governors, senators and outsiders would play out. So far, it’s not even close.
“It’s been a route in favor of the senators and outsiders,” said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye.
As executives with experience outside of Washington, governors have long been believed to have the edge in presidential primaries.
According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis from 2011 — before former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went on to secure the GOP nomination — about twice as many governors as senators have won their party’s nomination in modern times, even though only about half as many governors have run president.
Many Republicans believed that after eight years of President Obama, who was elected to the White House before finishing his first term in the Senate, conservative primary voters would have a strong appetite for the steady hand of an experienced executive.
And with anger and distrust of Congress at an all-time high, conventional wisdom said the governors were in good shape to capitalize on the anti-Washington sentiment.
It started out that way, with Bush, Christie and Walker beginning the year in a strong position.
That has changed, however. Political newcomers and true outsiders Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTHE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress Protesters rally outside NYT in support of media Poll: Majority thinks media too critical of Trump MORE and Ben Carson have bottled that energy.
“Eight months ago we were talking about governors versus senators, we weren’t talking about businessmen or brain surgeons,” Heye said. “It’s turned the entire narrative on its head.”
Meanwhile, ambitious young Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioTHE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress Rubio says town halls designed for people to 'heckle and scream' At CPAC, Trump lashes out at media MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted CruzTed CruzTHE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress Brietbart CEO reveals that Trump donors are part owners At CPAC, Trump lashes out at media MORE (R-Texas) have run impressive campaigns and have emerged as two of the party’s most effective communicators. Both men have appeal to grassroots conservatives looking to up-end the status quo in Washington, Republicans say.
“Cruz has nothing but enemies in the Senate and Rubio hates the Senate so much that he’s quitting it,” said former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen. “Both can make the case that while they’re in the system, they’re not insiders.”
The governors have struggled with the new media environment, in which political skill carries more weight than political experience.
Trump, an experienced showman, has dominated the media and turned the primary into must-watch TV.
Cruz and Rubio have proven to be erstwhile debaters and masters of the sound-bites that run endlessly on cable news.
Carson remains an enigma to many, but conservatives are thrilled by his insistence on straight talk. He regularly makes headlines for controversial statements, which only seems to invigorate his supporters.
None of the governors, perhaps with the exception of Christie, has had equal success in gaining traction with the media.
Bush is more comfortable talking policy and appears awkward when he has to venture into the realm of politics. And Walker was criticized as too vanilla and was overshadowed at the debates by the far larger personalities.
“It’s a different test this time around,” said GOP strategist David Payne. “Experience, executive experience, these aren’t the tests. It’s about the right ideas and the right temperament and coming off as tough. You see how important the debates have been. Style and presentation matter more than ever, more even than if you were a great leader in the past.”
Republicans have a reputation of flirting with insurgent candidates, before rallying behind the candidate who the party has long-viewed as next-in-line.
Republicans say that as recently as 2008, the party would never consider nominating a candidate with Obama’s profile: a candidate short on experience, but skilled at boiling down the party’s message while speaking in the terms of political revolution.
But all of the evidence points to Republicans gambling on an unproven commodity cut from that mold in 2016. In this cycle so far, conservative primary voters appear skeptical that the governors are best-equipped to disrupt Washington.
“Republicans this year don’t want managers, they want transformers,” conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace, a Cruz supporter, told The Hill. “They don’t want reform, they want revolution. They don’t want a better government, they want a new government. The ground has shifted and the grassroots conservatives have taken the establishment’s preeminence away.”
Still, Republicans like Cullen, who says he cannot support Trump, Carson or Cruz, say it’s still early, and the party will rally behind they types of candidates it’s nominated in the past.
“Some of these guys still look like summer love affairs to me, even if we’re well into the fall now,” he said. “I still think voters will want look to take the polished young man home that they can show off to mom and dad.”