Life After Romney

The week ends with a bang, not a whimper, what with the bombshell that Mitt Romney won’t seek the presidency.

Count me among the surprised. I thought The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last summed it up nicely in the following passage from his recent story about a 2016 Romney candidacy:

“The sense I always got (and this might be incorrect — I’m not his rabbi) was that Mitt Romney wanted to be president because he wanted to be president. And when the impulse to run is yoked to personal ambition and removed from politics, philosophy, or the world of ideas — well, that sort of yearning dies hard.”

Well, apparently that yearning did die — or, at a minimum, was suppressed by the uphill reality of Romney seeking his party’s nomination a third time.

Yes, Ronald Reagan got the GOP nod in 1980, on his third try. But those three runs spanned 12 years (people tend to forget that he briefly sought the presidency in 1968). Besides, Reagan was a movement politician espousing a philosophy pretty much unchanged from 1964 to 1980. As such, he enjoyed two luxuries that Romney never has in national politics: intellectual/ideological consistency and a passionate following.

The blogosphere is humming with speculation as to the impact of the Romney no-go. Here are my three takeaways.

1) A Unique GOP Field. Had Romney run, there was the distinct possibility of 2016 ending up as just another Republican selection process — the biggest-name, most-moneyed holdover from the previous campaign slogging his way to the nomination in a contest that was more about financial attrition than candidates’ attributes. For the first time since 2000, there’s no nominee-in-waiting — at least as far as holdovers are concerned (George W. Bush was the dominant frontrunner, based on name i.d. and an imposing political operation). Moreover, there’s no one dominant national figure dwarfing his or her fellow GOP candidates. Here’s a scary thought: the indivisual with the highest name i.d. at this moment: Donald Trump.

2) The Mainstream Widens. With Romney out of the race, the “270 money” (my term for big GOP donors who do they’re choosing based more so on electability than ideology) has to reassess. Jeb Bush obviously is a beneficiary, as he has been since he jumped into this race earlier than expected and started chipping away at Romney’s empire. Two other lower-tier candidates to watch: Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. Both can now approach Romney donors, talking points in hand about swing-state electability. And there’s a third possibility: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who might see the need to step up his ongoing flirtation amidst all this reassessment.

3) Generational Politics. Born seven months earlier than Hillary Clinton in 1947, Romney not only represents the early days of the Boomer generation, but had he run a continuation of the Republicans’ insistence on grandfatherly candidacies (the one exception since the end of the Cold War: George W. Bush, perhaps not coincidentally the only Republican to win the presidency since 1988). The potential exists for Republicans not only to tailor their message to younger voters, but also to put forward a candidate who embodies younger concerns (mortgages, college tuition, kids’ values). The last time America turned to a substantively older successor in an open-seat presidential election (I’m not including Bush 32, who’s six weeks older than Bill Clinton): 1980 and Ronald Reagan (13 years Jimmy Carter’s senior). Otherwise, turning the page usually entails turning to a younger president (not-so-good news for Madame Secretary).

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Revenge of the McCainiacs: Golden Graham?

Is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (r), the john McCain (l) of 2016? Straight talk, y’all!

One other note about the aforementioned Fox News Poll on the presidential field: you may be wondering what South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is doing among the names of possible GOP candidates.

Perhaps Graham will provide that answer when he soon travels to a couple of early-voting states as part of what’s become a very public flirtation with a national campaign.

“What I’m looking at is, is there a pathway forward on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire for a guy like me? I don’t know until I look,” Graham told reporters this week, when he also set an end-of-April deadline for entering or not.

How serious is South Carolina’s senior senator? He’s formed a committee called Security Through Strength. Headed by David Wilkins, a former Bush 43 ambassador to Canada, the organization’s purpose is to talk up the intersection of a strong economy and energy independence (and, oh by the way, raise money).

Besides, Graham’s entry into the race would give the 2016 GOP field its first — maybe its only — bonafide “McCainiac”, making him the logical heir to what remains of John McCain’s political coattails in New Hampshire, whose primary the Arizona senator won in 2000 (big upset) and 2008 (big comeback).

Already, McCain has declared Graham stronger on national security than Mitt Romney and a natural for New Hampshire’s rigorous town hall debates. If you have the time to do a Web search, you’ll find the Senate duo/op-ed pen pals teaming up on all sorts of matters (the Petraeus investigation, ISIS, Egypt, etc.). Imagine the eery time-warp image of Romney, Jeb Bush and McCain (on Graham’s behalf) traipsing through snowy New Hampshire.

Speaking of Bush, Graham might also provide the former Florida governor some cover on the subject of immigration reform as a fellow ‘big tent” candidate. Here’s what Graham told reporters with regard to what presumably would be a presidential bid betting heavily on inclusiveness: “There’s a growing element in our party that would like me to speak up. Where is the Republican Party on problem solving? Is there a rational way forward on immigration? Do you deport 11 million people? I don’t think so.”

You’ll recall that Graham was elected to a third term last fall after an uneasy 2013 in which he was seen as vulnerable to a Tea Party challenge. But that challenge never materialized and Graham breezed to a 15-point in November.

With another Senate contest contest not until 2020, a 2016 run would give Graham a chance to get exposure at the national level and lay the groundwork for another presidential bid four years afterwards.

Or, if he falls flat on his face (they don’t eat shrimp n’ grits in New Hampshire, do they?), four years to mend fences with the folks back home.

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2016 Poll Positions

What’s a race without odds, or an idea of who’s at the front of the pack?

Thanks to the good folks at Fox News, we have this poll of where Republican and Democratic hopefuls stand a calendar year or so before Iowans begin winnowing the field.

As you might expect, the poll says oodles about the twins powers of familiarity and the relentless pursuit of the 24-hour news cycle.

On the GOP side:

Mitt Romney 21%

Rand Paul/Mike Huckabee 11%

Jeb Bush 10%

Ben Carson 9%

Scott Walker 8%

Marco Rubio 5%

Chris Christie/Ted Cruz/Rick Perry 4%

Bobby Jindal 2%

John Kasich/Lindsey Graham/Rick Santorum 1%

On the Democratic side (no drama here) . . .

Hillary Clinton 55%

Joe Biden 17%

Elizabeth Warren 12%

Andrew Cuomo 4%

Bernie Sanders 3%

Martin O’Malley 2%

Jim Webb 1%

(take Hillary out of the race and Biden’s out front at 37%, followed by Warren at 21%)

Some poll notes (full pdf here):

1) In hypothetical match-ups, Hillary runs even with Romney (46-all), leads Paul by 3% (47-44) leads Bush by 5% (48-43) and Christie by 6% (48-42). Note that Mrs. Clinton isn’t cracking 50%, as she was last spring and summer.

2) President Obama’s approve/disapprove is 45-51, his best approval # since October 2013 (the President’s disapproval # has hovered between 49-55 over the same stretch).

3) Congress’ numbers remain craptacular — 18% approval, 73% disapproval. The last time Congress saw a 20% approval rating: June 2011. That’s right about the time Romney for President Version 2.0 was unveiled in New Hampshire, John Edwards was indicted and White Bulger’s luck ran out after being on the run from the FBI for 16 years

4) Asked if Romney would have done a better job as president than Obama, 43% said yes and 50% said no (maybe Romney 3.0 needs to tweak that “buyer’s remorse” rationale for why their man should take a third run at the White House).

While we’re talking about polls, let’s get a few other numbers out of our system:

1) There’s last week’s NH1 Pulse Poll showing Romney with a 29%-11% lead over Bush in the Granite State (Christie and Walker tied for third with 8% apiece, and someone named “someone else” lurking about at 18%).

2) Rubio won the informal straw poll at the Koch brothers’ conference in California this past weekend.

3) And just so you know we didn’t forget: the latest Afrobarometer poll shows Nigeria’s upcoming presidential contest too close to call.

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Does Iowa Have Too Much Clout? Yes, So Here’s a Fix.

A group of Republican presidential aspirants gathered in Iowa over the weekend, prompting two rather predictable outcomes.

1) The media choosing winners and losers. In the thumbs-up category, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. His argument for smaller government got high marks from Rush Limbaugh. Among the more unfortunate performers: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose free-association speech bordered on self-parody.

2) The media griping about Iowa as a king-maker. For this, we turn to The Washington Post and “The Fix”.  Here, you’ll find eight reasons why Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush were wise to skip the cattle call. And: why Iowa could be a no-win situation for Republicans in this election. Then again, when isn’t it? Except for George W. Bush, the GOP road from the caucuses to the Oval Office is a path rarely traveled (even Ronald Reagan lost the vote there in 1980).

Count me in the camp of those who find Iowa as complicating Republicans’ presidential fortunes with the over-emphasis on social conservatism.

So here’s my fix: shake up the primary schedule.

Four years ago, I suggested in this post that the GOP go about choosing a nominee the way the National Basketball Association selects its rookie players: hold a lottery and randomly select states to hold primaries every Tuesday, for six weeks.

Under my plan, it’d be a mix of one “mega” state (at least 18 electoral votes), three mid-size states (a minimum of 10 electoral votes), three smaller states (four to nine electoral votes), plus one very small state (three electoral votes. On the seventh Tuesday, it’d be one “mega” state, two mid-sized states and one small state doing the voting.

(btw, there’d be an element of fairness to all of this: just as there’s a firewall in the NBA lottery that prevents the team with the worst record from finishing lower than fourth in the draft, this political lottery could guarantee that the sixth- and seventh-week states would finish no lower than, say, the fourth week in the next election.)

Back in 2011, I was in a more forgiving mood and willing to let Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina keep their places at front of the line. Moving beyond 2016, I’d either: (a) toss them into the same lottery pool as the other states or (b) merge them all into one day, thus giving the field more leeway as to where to crack the race (Walker could have his day in Iowa, as might Romney in New Hampshire, while someone like former Texas Sen. Rick Perry could pull off a surprise in South Carolina).

Is this a solution the rank-and-file GOP could buy into? Of course not. New Hampshire will fight to the death to retain its “first in the nation” primary status. And there’s always a state that dares to buck the system (and the wrath of the RNC) by moving up its primary date.

Still, it’s fun to dream. And keep this reform proposal in mind four years from now, when another group of presidential aspirants are gathering in Iowa or New Hampshire, causing the media to freak out over “freak shows” and damaged-goods hopefuls.

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Temporarily Closed For Repairs

“Races” won’t be running for a few days, so that we can do a little fiddling with the site’s design.

When we resume, we’ll throw ourselves full-bore (hopefully, not becoming a bore) into the 2016 presidential race, as well as emerging Senate and gubernatorial contests.

As for what we’re doing with the blog, it’s nothing dramatic.

But one thing we will do that most readers likely will applaud: getting rid of Congress (hint: we’re replacing one piece of valuable D.C. real estate with another).

Back soon,

Bill Whalen

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Life After Boxer, In Brief

California Sen. Barbara Boxer — no rebellion, lots of competition for her job in 2016.

And so, of all the senators up for reelection in 2016, Barbara Boxer becomes to first domino to fall — the fourth-term California Democrat announcing Thursday that she’s headed for retirement.

Two things about Boxer’s decision:

1) It probably won’t change the chamber’s partisan balance. The last Republican to win a Senate contest in the Golden Sate was Pete Wilson. And that was in 1988. Since then, Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have won nine consecutive races. It’ll probably be 10 straight for Democrats in 2016, given that it’s a presidential year and a higher turnout that works to the Republicans’ disadvantage in the Golden State. If it’s a Senate battleground you seek in 2016, head next door to Nevada.

2) Still, the vacancy makes for fun people-watching. California is waist-deep in Democrats who’ve been waiting for one of the Big Three to step down (that’s Boxer, Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown) and ankle-deep in Republicans who’ll take a stab at it. The operative phrase: mad scramble.

Here are a few California names to note:

1) State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Depending on which anonymous source is doing the talking, both lust for Boxer’s job — or Brown’s, or Feinstein’s (both of which are up in 2018). Two things they do share: the same political consultant and the conviction that they can be players on the national stage. Let’s see if they can avoid a collision in California’s June 2016 primary.

2) Rep. Darrell Issa. Thanks to term limits, Issa no longer chairs the House Oversight and Government Policy. So maybe he’s ready for a new challenge — one closer to his San Diego-area home. In fact, it didn’t take Issa long to tell reporters that Boxer’s seat has been has been vacant “for two decades”.  Overlooked amidst Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political ascent a decade ago: Issa also coveted the governor’s office — in fact, it was his $2 million investment that got the recall qualified for the ballot. Issa has two advantages in a 2016 primary: (a) a record of making the Obama Administration his personal chew toy that could play well with GOP primary voters; (b) an estimated net worth of $357 million, thus making him the wealthiest men in Congress and, presumably, capable of spending tens of millions of dollars on campaign media.

3) While we’re on the topic of well-to-do Californians, lets’s add billionaire hedge-fund manager and climate-change activist Tom Steyer to the mix. He was the biggest super PAC donor in the 2014 election. As for that $67 million of his own money that he tossed into various races nationwide via NextGen Climate, it had all the bang of a Prius sitting at a stoplight. Maybe that’ll discourage Steyer from going the Meg Whitman stratospheric route in 2016. Or maybe his 2014 outlay wetted his appetite . . .

There are plenty of other names being floated regarding the race to replace Boxer (here’s one such list). But let’s circle back to the notion of Harris and Newsom and national politics. For all the attention given to a Hillary Clinton presidential run, the reality is the Democratic Party doesn’t have much in the way of a bench. The ranks are thin in both the congressional and gubernatorial ranks.

A California Democrat who wins the 2016 Senate race would have at least two full years in Washington to maneuver his or her way into the Democrats’ 2020 conversation — this is assuming Hillary runs in 2016 and loses. It may be especially tempting for Harris given her gender and race (she’s African-American). If elected, she can head to the Senate and create a brand other than “the best-looking attorney general” (thank you, Mister President).

That’s a lot of speculation. Then again, if history and California voting patterns tell us anything, this seat may not become available again for another quarter of a century.

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How Long Does the Senate Stay Republican?

You won’t hear much talk about the House changing hands in 2016.

With 247 seats under Republican control, Nancy Pelosi would need a Democrat landslide the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 2006 to make that happen. As there won’t be an unpopular GOP president driving the next election, such a scenario seems unlikely.

Besides, the same rising tide that would bring in a Democratic House majority in 2016 would probably wash it out to sea in 2018 after a negative midterm referendum against a Democratic president.

The Senate, where Republicans hold a far less commanding 54-46 advantage, is another matter.

In 2016, 34 members of the Senate’s “Class 3″ will have to decide whether to retire or seek another term. That includes 24 Republicans and 10 Democrats. To make matters worse for the GOP: only two Democratic seats are in competitive states (Colorado and Nevada), while  over half a dozen Republican incumbents are up in states that Barack Obama carried at least once.

(in 2018, the pendulum swings back the GOP’s way, with 23 Democrats (and 3 independents who caucus with them up for reelection versus only 8 Republicans).

There are plenty of moving parts to keep an eye on 2015 — for example, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter is running for governor this fall. And some members could surprise us by calling it a career.

In the meantime, here are a handful of senators worth keeping an eye on:

1) Barbara Boxer. California’s junior Democratic senator may or may not run for re-election in 2016. The early betting line is she doesn’t, unleashing a logjam of younger Golden State Democrats who’ve patiently waited for her or Dianne Feinstein to step down. This has nothing to do with the balance of peer in Washington, though it could be an entertaining food fight among progressive Left Coasters.

2) Harry Reid. The former majority leader is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat heading into 2016, especially if he’s challenged the the recently reelected Gov. Brian Sandoval (i.e., “the man who keep Harry Reid up at night”). Reid’s 2015 got off to the worst possible start — an accident at home resulting in broken ribs and facial bones. Kind of a metaphor for a lot of Senate Democrat who fell down and went boom in 2014.

3) Rand Paul. It’s not that Paul would lose in the Bluegrass State. At issue is whether he can juggle two contests at the same time: a Senate re-election and an expected presidential run. Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and loser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last fall, has threatened to take Paul to court to block him from running simultaneously for the two offices. On a more positive note: a quirk in election law apparently enables Paul to twice hit up his donors for campaign cash.

4) Pat Toomey. The freshman Pennsylvania Republican slipped by in 2010 by 80,000 votes (over 3.9 million were cast in that year’s Senate contest). The question is whether Keystone Democrats will go along with a rematch that includes former Rep. Joe Sestak.

5) Mark Kirk. Another blue-state Republican (Illinois), Kirk likewise is wrapping up his first Senate term. three years after suffering a strike, Kirk says he’s running in 2016 “come hell or high water”. The Democrat to look for: Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq war veteran and double amputee, who already polls in a dead heat with Kirk.

6) Kelly Ayotte. The other contest to look for in New Hampshire in 2016, other than the first-in-the-nation primary. Ayotte, a Republican, is oft-mentioned as a vice presidential hopeful in 2016. Legally, she could run for two offices at the same time, according to New Hampshire elected officials. The question: could she juggle two campaigns, given how seriously the Live Free or Die crowd takes its politics?

7) Ron Johnson. The good news for Johnson, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin: three times over a four-year span (two regular elections plus a failed recall effort), his state voted for GOP Gov. Scott Walker. The bad news: only twice in the last 60-plus years has the state voted for a Republican senator in a presidential year (Bob Kasten 1980 and Joe McCarthy in 1952) — not a good sign for Johnson given that the last presidential Republican to carry the state was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

8) Michael Bennet. Last but not least, a freshman Democrat in a high-stakes presidential swing state. Bennet’s come-from-behind win in 2010 was the blueprint for the Democrats’ failed approach to last fall’s Colorado Senate race. As for who will challenge Bennet: the Coffman household (husband Mike is a GOP congressman; wife Cynthia is the states newly elected attorney general) is a good place to start.

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