GOP senators turn against their own in '16

Greg Nash

Fearful of a third successive Democratic triumph, concerned Senate Republicans are turning against 2016 presidential bids by upstart hopefuls within their own ranks.

In forceful comments to The Hill, GOP senators made it plain that they would much prefer their party nominate a current or former governor over Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) or Rand Paul (Ky.).

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Those senators have created a buzz among conservative activists, but their colleagues in the upper chamber are eager to support a nominee from outside Washington with a record of attracting independents and centrist Democrats.

They worry that Washington has become so toxic that it could poison the chances of any nominee from Congress in 2016.

“I’m not saying people like Rand Paul and Rubio and Cruz — and there are probably 10 other senators who think they could be president — shouldn’t be president. I’m just saying I want to elect somebody, and everybody is so anti-Washington now that it might be better to have somebody that’s outside of Washington,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), one of the upper chamber’s most senior Republicans.

Grassley said his views could change after the midterm elections, but he also noted that Congress’s approval rating now stands at 13 percent.

“But I wonder if it’s even 13 because I went around Iowa to 14 counties during Easter and I didn’t find one person who approved of Congress,” he said.

Worry that the party might be heading toward nominating a lawmaker with scant chance of winning the general election comes as the hopes of Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.), who had been seen as a strong candidate, are at least temporarily eclipsed by scandal.

And history suggests bids from the Senate face structural problems. Only 16 senators have gone on to become commander in chief, including President Obama, who defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. So, it’s not surprising that officials in both parties have long preferred governors to sitting members of Congress. Yet, the emphasis is greater this time around on the GOP side.

Part of the reason is that the political stocks of Paul and Cruz, who have made enemies quickly in the GOP establishment, have risen as Christie’s has sunk.

Republicans say the bottom line is their pick for 2016 has to beat Hillary Clinton, who left the Senate to become Obama’s secretary of State.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said Cruz became a hero among conservatives for making a stand against ObamaCare during last year’s government shutdown but that this might hurt him among swing voters in a general election.

“I’ve always said about Ted or whomever: Can you broaden the base? Can you appeal to that Republican or Democrat out there who says, ‘I want a president who can govern, who can start fixing the problems?’

“Whether it’s Ted or Marco or whoever, they have to be able to close the deal. They have to be able to make the case that, ‘I can do it — I can literally lead this government,’ ” he said.

Republican strategists say lawmakers are uncomfortable with the prospect of nominating a standard-bearer in 2016 whom Democrats can attack as having little practical experience running a large enterprise.

“Senators make uniquely dreadful candidates,” said Rich Galen, who served as a senior adviser to former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) 2008 presidential campaign.

“Senators spend their entire day debating if a semicolon should be a comma. Governors have to run very complex organizations, and they know how to do it,” he said.

Galen said of the three Republican senators angling for the White House, Cruz would have the toughest time broadening the party’s base.

“What you don’t need in the White House is somebody who is so horribly dogmatic,” he said.

If Paul decides to run for president in 2016, he is likely to spark strong opposition from the national security and big-business wings of the party.

Republican senators say McCain, a respected voice in the GOP conference, privately advocated against former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during the 2012 GOP primary, arguing at the time that he was unelectable.

More than two years out from Election Day 2016, fellow senators say Paul, Cruz and Rubio are not likely to give them their best chance to recapture the White House.

“I don’t think you have to be a governor, but they have an executive position, and it’s easier to make the transition,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said.

“If you talk about the top tier, you’re talking about Christie, Bush, Walker and the governor of Louisiana,” he added in reference to the New Jersey governor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) expressed concern that sitting senators would have to defend their voting records on a myriad of controversial issues, a liability governors don’t have.

“Traditionally, it has been better to nominate a governor,” he said. “It’s easier to tag a sitting senator with votes they’ve already taken. It’s not so easy to do that with a governor.”

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said governors historically have made strong candidates.

“I kind of look at the way history has played out. Governors have the executive experience that’s necessary,” he said. “They have the experience to move the ball forward.”

The last time a Republican senator won election directly to the White House was in 1920, when Warren Harding of Ohio captured the nomination.

Heller said voters often prefer governors because they are seen as more pragmatic: “If you have to lead [a state], you’re less partisan.”

Ford O’Connell, who worked on McCain’s 2008 campaign, said a governor can run against Washington as well as his party’s own establishment, an attractive possibility when the GOP’s brand fairs poorly with important electoral blocs, such as Hispanics.

“They recognize the key to winning is demonstrating to voters the value of governing competence over governing ideologically,” he said of Senate Republicans’ preference for nominating a governor who can “run on their own brand versus the party’s brand.”

He argued that the spate of attacks on Christie shows Democratic strategists are much more concerned about him than Paul, Cruz or Rubio.

Ron Kaufman, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said GOP senators aren’t eschewing their colleagues because of personal animosity but simply because “people in Washington realize Washington’s image is so tarnished and broken.”

The last three senators the GOP nominated for president, McCain, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), all lost by more than 190 electoral votes and by an average of 282 electoral votes. Richard Nixon served as a senator from California but was subsequently elected vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.