If you are a Republican and you like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then you probably already have your candidate for the 2016 presidential campaign. If you do not like Christie, then your candidate for 2016 is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Now that we’ve worked that out, you can ignore the next two years of GOP infighting. You can spend your free time canning beans or mastering the miter saw. It’s a very premature conclusion, but the Wisconsin governor appears to be the only likely conservative alternative to Christie who also has a chance at getting elected. If you are uncomfortable with Christie as the default establishment choice, there is an incentive to choose someone else early. Because if the New Jersey governor’s opponents split their vote among several candidates in the primaries, Christie will be the GOP nominee.
The anti-Christie fragmentation is already underway. Once he was re-elected governor, the auditions to play the role of ABC (Anybody but Christie) started pretty quickly. Sen. Ted Cruz drew a fundamental distinction. “I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race,” said the Texas senator of Christie. “But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle.”
Sen. Marco Rubio tried to make the blue state of New Jersey a jail cell. “Clearly, he was able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of people within New Jersey,” said Rubio. “That’s important. We want to win everywhere, and Gov. Chris Christie has certainly shown he has a way of winning in New Jersey, in states like New Jersey.”
Sen. Rand Paul said it was good to have a “moderate” like Christie in the party. Later he said Christie never would have won re-election were it not for the federal largess that paid for the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
The senators have spoken. The problem is that’s what senators are mostly known for doing: talking. They may make good presidential candidates, but in 2016 the political bias is going to be for chief executives. Republican voters tend to be fond of governors; they see the job as good training for the White House. You sharpen a set of skills that more closely track with the ones you’ll need in the Oval Office. With the voters so sick of Washington politicians, the political incentive is to stay away from senators because—no matter how much they behave like insurgents—they still have the smell of Washington on them. Finally, Republicans have been vocal for a long time that President Obama’s failures flow from his lack of executive experience. Given this, it is hard to imagine that enough voters would want to replace him with another one-term senator who has built his reputation on nothing more than the quality of his speeches. (Unsurprisingly, Walker thinks the GOP is going to nominate a governor in 2016, too).
That narrows the field down to the pool of leading current and former Republican governors: Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Perry, and Walker. All of those men have something to recommend them, but “no one checks as many boxes as Walker does,” as an Iowa GOP strategist puts it. Walker has near hero status in the grassroots for taking on Wisconsin’s public sector unions. Cruz talks about taking stands on principle, but he lost his fight. Walker took a stand, was targeted by the full force of the Democratic machine, and stayed alive. He won a recall election with a larger margin than his original victory. He raised $30 million for that race, so he knows how to tap wealthy donors. Social conservatives also consider him one of their own for his pro-life views and his pedigree: His father was a Baptist minister.
Jindal and Perry have supporters in conservative circles, but Jindal can’t match Walker’s union-slaying story and Perry’s accomplishments won’t help him overcome the memories of his disastrous 2012 run. If the incentive is to pick a Christie alternative who can survive, it also helps if the candidate comes from a battleground state—even better if they come from a swing state in the Midwest. Walker also brings helpful connections to Iowa, that early caucus state. Besides governing in nearby Wisconsin, Walker grew up in Iowa. Right now GOP operatives describe the competition in the Hawkeye State as one between Rand Paul (whose forces control the state party) and Sen. Ted Cruz (who excites the base).
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hails from a swing state, but he himself has admitted that he is out of step with the Republican Party on immigration. He may still be noodling a run, but he could easily be painted as a GOP moderate—and that space is already occupied by Christie. That leaves just John Kasich of Ohio. Like Walker, Kasich also took on the unions, but he lost. In the eyes of conservatives, he did something else that may be unpardonable: He took federal Medicaid money as a part of the Affordable Care Act. That robs Kasich of an issue he could have used to distinguish himself from Christie (who also took Medicaid money) and, say some conservatives, dismantles his ability to argue for smaller spending in Washington. Walker, on the other hand, refused the Medicaid money, and is launching his own state solution, which is receiving praise from conservatives.
Walker has a book coming out tomorrow, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which has just the title you’d want if you were trying to use your record as governor as the platform for a national run. His biggest challenge may be his temperate demeanor. Conservatives want a fighter, and while Walker throws punches, he doesn’t seem nearly as pugilistic as Christie, Cruz, and Paul. Personality traits can matter a great deal in primaries where policy distinctions between candidates are nearly nonexistent. Walker’s other challenge is that he’s still facing re-election in 2014. The polls are tight, but he could take a lesson from Christie: A strong win makes you seem strong.