Can a GOP senator win the White House?

Has the GOP establishment already conceded the presidency to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE? They would naturally deny it. But the party establishment is slowing coalescing behind Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCongress faces growing health care crisis in Puerto Rico The Hill's 12:30 Report Colbert mocks Trump for sipping water during speech on Asia trip MORE (R-Fla.) despite a long pattern of failure by GOP senators seeking the White House.

Ever since the Great Depression it seems there has been a “No Republican Senator Need Apply” sign posted on the White House door. The GOP winners: General Dwight Eisenhower, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, former California governor Ronald Reagan, incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Texas Governor George W. Bush. 

ADVERTISEMENT
In this period, no sitting Republican member of the Senate has been elected president. Three have won the GOP presidential nomination only to lose the election — Barry Goldwater in 1964, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE in 2008.

Moreover, four times in this period — 1952, 1968, 1980 and 2000 — the political troubles of the sitting Democratic president made Republican primary voters adamant about choosing a nominee able to recapture the White House. Each time, these same voters rejected a powerful Republican senator, correctly deciding that someone with a different job profile would have a better chance of forcing the Democrats out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Long political story made short: The well of the Senate has been a vale of tears for Republicans harboring presidential ambitions. Goldwater and McCain leveraged strong support in key constituencies — the former tapping Western conservatives’ rising power, the latter leveraging the GOP moderate wing’s waning clout — to win the nomination. Dole beat a lackluster field of opponents on the way to his fourth failed try for national office. 

There is little in the history of these past presidential cycles to suggest there is a sitting Republican senator who can win the White House in 2016. Carrying the GOP senatorial colors into the presidential wars has proved a crushing burden in the modern era.

Why? When Americans want a change at the White House, they want someone who doesn’t remind them of the mess they see in Washington. The current GOP candidates with executive experience – either in business or as governors - clearly understand this reality. They take every opportunity to remind voters that Senators Rubio and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTexas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' Moore endorsements disappear from campaign website MORE (R-Texas) are actually not political outsiders but part of the problem in Washington.

Yet could a young rookie senator such as Rubio or Cruz break this streak? Youthful Democrats John F. Kennedy and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReport: FCC chair to push for complete repeal of net neutrality Right way and wrong way Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak MORE, the two senators in this period who did make it to the White House, were the country’s only Roman Catholic chief executive and its first African-American chief executive, respectively. They were the anti-senators — of the body but not part of it. They were both viewed by key voting blocs as symbolizing a challenge to the political establishment — even inside their own party.

The hope for Rubio and Cruz is that a fresh face or reputed outsider-type senator has a chance seeking the 2016 GOP nomination. Right now, the ultimate outsider, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE, holds a commanding lead while the junior senators appear for the moment best positioned to move up should he falter. In the race to be known as the true outsider in the Senate – the current GOP version of the anti-senator – the clear leader is Cruz. The more that the party establishment lines up behind Rubio and conveys its dislike of Cruz, the more likely the senator from Texas appeals to a GOP electorate hungry for a true outsider.

Yet Cruz's tenure in the Senate is defined in a way that is likely a general election curse. He might be a rebel. But can someone painted as the "shutdown Senator" for closing the government rather than reaching an accommodation with the president escape the public's overwhelming negative opinion of Washington politics? 

History says no. Rubio smartly has managed to avoid such a definition, and that may make him, and not Cruz, the credible GOP version of Kennedy and Obama who proved it is possible to go directly from the Senate to the Rose Garden. His immediate challenge is overcoming the outsider appeal of Trump and Cruz to prove a GOP senator actually can win the presidency.

Goldman writes a weekly column for the Washington Post and is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.