The focus of most folks, whether average voters are political insiders, is properly on this year’s mid-term elections, whether the Senate will shift its majority to the GOP, which party will gain how many seats in the House, and which party will win a number of important gubernatorial races.
But behind this concentration on the front-burner, many GOP insiders are watching the early stages of the 2016 presidential nomination contest, which will begin in earnest early in 2015. The potential candidates themselves are hinting, not announcing, but they are busy providing publicity for Republican candidates (and for themselves) and headlining fundraisers in statewide and congressional races. This is especially true in the Southern states that now play a key role in the march to the 2016 Republican convention.
Florida, because of its size as well as its early place on the primary calendar, is a particularly important state, and arguably provided the victory that sealed the deal for Mitt Romney in 2012. And though the next presidential election is a good two years away, Florida Republicans, especially those active in politics, are very much interested in 2016.
Presidential talk in Florida is spurred in part because there are five potential Republican candidates with significant ties to the Sunshine State: Former Gov. Jeb Bush; US Sen. Marco Rubio; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has lived in the Panhandle for the past few years; Dr. Ben Carson, who works in Baltimore (at Johns Hopkins) but resides in West Palm Beach; and Gov. Rick Scott, if he gets reelected.
“Jeb is the 800lb gorilla,” says SPR’s source. “Everybody wants Jeb to run. The Republican establishment needs Jeb to run. People have confidence in him because they know him and have seen him in action. There’s a great deal of hope for him to run.”
Bush’s popularity is reflected in polls of Florida GOPers. He led all four Florida polls cited by Realclearpolitics.com, with an average of 29.7%, followed by Rubio with 13.3 points. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were tied for third, with 9.7% each, followed by Huckabee with 8.3%, Chris Christie with 7.0% and Scott Walker with 5.3%.
Rubio has been campaigning for Republican candidates and is s significant force. “While people are suspicious of him on immigration,” continues our source, “he still has superstar status.”
Huckabee, “not really a Floridian,” has nevertheless gotten some credit for campaigning for Republican candidates in Florida.
Carson, of course, is everybody’s long-shot, in and out of Florida.
The dark horse is Gov. Rick Scott. If he wins in November, he becomes only the second Republican governor in Florida’s history to get reelected. He’s also got a record in office that should appeal to conservatives, and he’s wealthy.
After Florida, South Carolina is probably the most influential Southern state in the GOP nominating process. The Palmetto State has traditionally been host to the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary, and until Newt Gingrich won the state’s primary in 2012 then lost Florida to Romney, the GOP winner in South Carolina had gone on to win the presidential nomination for some 30 years.
Thus, potential GOP presidential candidates have been visiting the Palmetto State regularly. Last week, Christie was in Charleston, where he held a news conference with Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC). As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie has been to 28 states, reports the Associated Press. These trips include campaign events and fundraisers for Republican candidates in both Carolinas. In addition, in the last several weeks, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), Rick Santorum, Rubio, Cruz and Paul have made political stops in South Carolina, and Bush is expected in the state next month. As a result, says a GOP insider, “Lots of people are talking” about the coming contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
A Clemson Palmetto poll in May showed Bush in first place, with 22%, followed by Christie with 10%, Cruz and Paul with 9% each, and Rubio with 6%. A poll last October showed Christie in first place.
One South Carolina conservative characterizes Bush as “conservative, reform-minded” when he was governor of Florida, adding, “Other than his last name, I don’t know why he’s branded as the establishment candidate.”
Two other Southern states are likely to play a role in the 2016 GOP race.
North Carolina enacted legislation that would effectively place the state’s presidential primary on “the Tuesday after the first South Carolina presidential preference primary.” However, the North Carolina law as written may conflict with Republican National Committee rules, so the final calendar is unclear. In any case, a Public Policy Polling (D) survey showed Hillary Clinton leading Christie, Paul and Cruz, but Bush led her by 2 points and Huckabee by 1 point.
Georgia legislators are contemplating something similar to North Carolina, a law that would put their presidential primary close to those of South Carolina and Florida. The hope would be that a strong Southern presence in the early primary calendar would produce a more conservative nominee. “There’s not been much discussion [of the 2016 candidates], because of the Senate and governor’s races,” says one GOP source, but he adds, “People want Georgia to be a player.”
The poll numbers will change dozens of times during months leading up to the primaries. “The Big Mo,” as George H. W. Bush dubbed the momentum one gets from a primary victory, quickly shifts voter allegiances within the party. But the very early polling does tell us who’s got a degree of name recognition and potential support to give a likely candidate the hope that, with a smart campaign and a lot of lucky breaks, he or she might make it to the White House. Stay tuned!