A crowded Republican field

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 15, 2011


A year before Republican sympathizers elect their presidential nominee in the 2012 primaries, the field of candidates is getting crowded. Though that reflects enthusiasm and dynamism in the Republican camp, it also evidences divisions, lack of convincing leadership and growing concern that none of the likely candidates can defeat Barack Obama come November 2012.


Four years ago, in February of 2007, then Democratic Senator from Illinois Barack Obama announced that he would seek his party presidential nomination. A year before the primaries, Obama had a complicated challenge to prepare for, defeating the then democratic favorite Hillary Clinton.  Today, Republicans have a wide open field to get the nomination. As it normally happens in the opposition party when an incumbent president seeks re-election, potential runners have to weight challenging a sitting president against waiting four more years for an open race. This time, that chess game has delayed announcements of the formation of exploratory committees by Republican presidential hopefuls.


The results of the recent midterm elections should have enthused more Republicans to run, but the revolt from within a vocal faction of the party has scared away some potential candidates who could do well in the national election but might find it difficult to clinch the Republican nomination.


The Tea Party has been both a blessing and a problem for the Republicans. On the one hand, Tea Partiers have allowed the party to regain a strong fiscal conservative platform. After 8-years of runaway spending under George W. Bush, Republicans have once again embraced spending cuts. Calls to keep Bush’s tax cuts—as a mechanism to stimulate the economy and generate jobs and growth—is also a popular message that unites the party.


On the other, Tea Party sympathizers have beliefs that alienate moderates. Several members of the House of Representatives—including the new Republican speaker John Boehner—have been ambiguous in their response to off-the-mark accusations about Obama being Muslin and/or not being born in the United States. Those wacky accusations have been justified by Bohner on grounds that Americans have the right to believe what they want. Bohner’s position reflects the power the Tea Party has acquired within Republican ranks. The moderate American electorate might reject Republicans if Tea Partiers are perceived as dominating the party.  Yet, standing up to the Tea Party’s extreme views might make it impossible for a Republican to clinch the presidential nomination.


Republican presidential hopefuls are waiting to see what relevance the Tea Party will have before making their announcements. After all, when they announce, they will be hard pressed to outline their views and positions on many issues. In so doing, they will risk alienating Tea Party sympathizers or adopting positions that will be unpopular with the general public. 


Not surprisingly, the few names that all but confirmed as candidates in the primaries have run before. Former governor of Massachusetts, Matt Rommey, a Mormon and businessman, unsuccessfully ran in 2008—and was defeated by John McCain—is now the frontrunner.  Former Vice-Presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin is also among the favorite. Others like South Dakota Senator John Thune, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, or former candidates Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul are also among the long list of potential runners. 


One way to organize the list and make sense of who is running, and on what platform, is to understand the current Republican Party as a coalition comprised of three sectors, business, the political establishment and the Tea Party.  Each of those factions will likely have one strong candidate for the primaries. Ideally, they want a candidate that will also be acceptable to at least one other faction. Rommey is the front runner of the business wing. He is working hard to make himself acceptable to the other two wings. Palin—and to a lesser extent Ron Paul—are favorites of the Tea Party, but others like Gingrich, who is closer to the establishment, might be deemed sufficiently acceptable and more electable.  The political Republican establishment is worried about the Tea Party. They understandably fear that Tea Party extremism might lead to Obama’s victory. For the Republican establishment, Thune, Pawlenty or Gingrich would be better if those candidates prove capable of generating more enthusiasm among the electorate (both the Republican base and the general public). The Republican establishment would be much happier with former Florida governor Jebb Bush—whose outreach to Latinos might make him more competitive in several traditional democratic states. Yet, a Bush candidacy would inevitably be associated with the unpopular legacy of George W. Bush.


Republicans have a big challenge ahead of them. Although President Obama is vulnerable—and he will be even weaker if there is in 2012 a lagging economy with high unemployment—Republicans need to stay in the center to win the next presidential election. The Tea Party will make it difficult for centrist Republicans to win the nomination. Yet, if a centrist does clinch the nomination, the 2012 race will be highly competitive.