In the last month, there has been a tidal wave of activity on the 2016 presidential race. Just a few short weeks ago, no candidates had officially announced their presidential campaigns and the news was full of speculation as to when the obvious contenders would do so. Today, six Republicans have mounted credible candidacies and the all but assured Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has told America she is all in. Still, two Republican frontrunners, Governors Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, have yet to announce their bids and several other presidential announcements seem on the horizon.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has surged in the polls since his announcement. Rubio was one of the original Tea Party favorites. The grassroots movement propelled him to office in 2010 with a primary victory that upset moderate Republican Charlie Crist, who has since become a Democrat. Rubio lost some steam in 2013, however, when he was a chief sponsor of the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration bill – denounced by many conservatives as an amnesty deal, but he later withdrew his sponsorship and support from the final bill. Rubio amassed enormous applause in his April 13 announcement. His speech highlighted an inspiring personal story. “I live in an exceptional country where the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams, and the same future as those who’ve come from power and privilege,” he reflected. While his background was a major theme, his chief focus was not on the past but on the future, about which he sought to infuse a sense of optimism in his listeners. The Florida Senator beckoned voters to ensure that the 21st century would also be “an American century.” Like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s big breakout speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Rubio’s eloquent address had an immediate impact, helping to catapult him to the top of the GOP field. In some of the most recent polls, he even sits in first place. Regardless of whether or not his lead holds, the Sunshine State’s junior Senator is definitely enjoying a moment in the sun.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz was the first candidate officially out of the gate. Cruz made his announcement at the ultraconservative Liberty University, a hotbed of politically engaged evangelical Christians. The choice of venue was suggestive that Cruz’s campaign, like his senatorial career, would center on energizing the conservative base. Indeed, in his announcement, the Senator implied he would have what it takes to get conservatives to show up to the polls who had sat out the last two cycles, asking his audience to “imagine millions of conservatives rising up.” The implication that 2016 could be won by the base alone drew sharp pushback from many analysts, including Republicans George Will and Karl Rove, who argued against the assertion common on the right that conservative Republicans stayed at home because Romney and McCain weren’t conservative enough. In any event, it is clear that for a path to victory in the general election, Cruz must have a strategy to appeal not only to conservative voters, but also the swing demographics that lie closer to the middle of the ideological spectrum. While fond of accusing less conservative Republicans of being “mushy,” though, the two-and-a-half year Senator’s greatest challenge in the primary may be convincing conservatives that there is substance in his record. A scathing piece in Politico recently charged that while the Texas firebrand sought to distinguish himself as “the anti-senator,” “he’s been more like the no-show senator,” noting the unusually high number of absences from that body during his tenure in it. The Senator has charged that most of these were procedural votes, not matters of great importance. Still, while many conservatives adore the Lone Star State’s junior senator, polls suggest they may prefer someone with a greater record – hence the appeal of someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who by all accounts is just as conservative as Senator Cruz, yet has more results of which to boast.
Between the two announcements, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a hero to the libertarian Right, launched his own long-anticipated candidacy for president. Like his Senate colleague Ted Cruz, Paul embraces the anti-establishment label, urging his supporters to “defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” Paul’s campaign has a unique flavor, however. Although more mainstream and pragmatic than his father, the younger Paul’s libertarian streak definitely sets him apart from the rest of the GOP field. Civil liberties featured prominently in his address. “The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped,” he decried. Tackling the NSA, Paul pledged to “immediately end unconstitutional surveillance” on Day 1 of his presidency. Paul continued to distance himself from his fellow Republicans on foreign policy. “Conservatives should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed at building nations abroad,” he warned. Paul, however, countered the notion that he would be soft on foreign policy, stressing his commitment to a strong national defense and vowing to oppose any deal with Iran that does not end its nuclear program and have strong verification measures. Unlike the elder Paul, Rand has worked to broaden both the Republican tent and the appeal of his libertarian message by taking his message to audiences long hostile to Republicans, such as historically African American colleges and universities. Unlike many of his fellow Tea Party firebrands, Paul has focused a lot of attention on building allies and coalitions in Congress, like forming an odd but amiable partnership with New Jersey’s Democratic Senator, Cory Booker, on criminal justice reform – one of the areas in which he thinks his message can attract significant support from the black community. While Paul’s odds at securing the party nomination are small, his candidacy promises to elevate the level of debate in the primaries and draw focus to issues that the Republican Party has generally neglected.
These three senators were the first out of the box, but in the past two weeks they have been joined by three more candidates: former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Carson had openly hinted at a presidential bid and was one of the first candidates to form an exploratory committee. He became a Tea Party hero when he criticized President Obama in person at the National Prayer Breakfast two years ago, but his time in the political limelight has been marred by gaffes that hinder his appeal and his credibility. His previous support for gun control measures is another impediment to Carson, whose base of support hails exclusively from the Tea Party wing of the party. His lack of any political experience, furthermore, fuels the narrative that Carson is both ill-equipped for the task of governing and ill-prepared for the scrutiny of an extensive campaign. Indeed, his zero years in public office makes fellow Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz look like a veteran politician.
Just as the Republican field’s likely only African American candidate is a political freshman, so too is the field’s likely only woman candidate, Carly Fiorina. Unlike Carson, Fiorina has campaigned before, however. Her one other foray into politics was a 2010 challenge to California Senator Barbara Boxer. In that race, Fiorina performed well with independence, but ultimately could not overcome the Golden State’s blue wall, losing by almost ten points. But what Fiorina lacks in political experience, supporters say she makes up for in business experience. She was the first woman to lead a Fortune 100 company, serving as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO from July 1999 until February 2005. Fiorina’s corporate career boasts its share of successes, such as a structural reorganization and successful merger with Compaq Computer Corp. in 2002. It is not without its controversies, though. The same charges levied against her by the Boxer campaign in 2010 have resurfaced by her critics – namely the charge that she laid off 30,000 workers and that she was ultimately fired by the board. A critic recently acquired the domain CarlyFiorina.org and used it to remind voters of the number of workers laid off at Hewlett-Packard while she was CEO. When others criticized her for failing to register the domain, however, she took it in stride and with spunk. When NBC’s Seth Myers and Chuck Todd drew attention to the faux scandal now being referred to as “DomainGate” in interviews with the former CEO, Fiorina proved how easy it was to acquire domains by purchasing SethMyers.org and ChuckTodd.org, redirecting both to her campaign website. By turning “DomainGate” from a potential negative into a positive plus, she has done damage control in a skillful and humorous way. Despite being a far better campaigner than the other political novice in this race, however, Fiorina’s lack of political experience and the presence of much higher-profile candidates in the race will make it very difficult for her fledgling campaign to garner much momentum.
Itching for a redo of 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has also entered the race for president. While Huckabee’s emphasis on values has long endeared him to social conservatives, it could hurt him with moderates and independents, especially in the general election. Huckabee is seen as a hard-liner on social issues, frequently criticizing his fellow Republicans for not taking a harder stand against the advancement of gay marriage. But while Huckabee is an outspoken social conservative, he is also an economic populist. His friendliness to tax increases as Governor and his willingness to defend a larger role for government in domestic policy have made him many enemies on the Right, including the Club for Growth, with which he has had a long feud that has gotten personal at times. It’s possible that his unique ideological position within the GOP will enable him to carve out his own niche on the political spectrum. However, it’s also possible that by alienating social moderates, fiscal conservatives, and party pragmatists, the lone soldier in “Huck’s Army” will be Mike Huckabee. But perhaps those who criticize the former Arkansas Governor will soon be silenced by a roundhouse kick from his biggest supporter- Chuck Norris.
As far as the GOP announcements go, this is just the beginning. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are definitely running and will make their announcements by this summer. Bush and Walker top many polls, but if Rubio’s momentum holds, he joins them in the frontrunners’ club. Other candidates are longshots, but could have a significant impact on the eventual nominee since the top contenders are very close. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who, like Governor Huckabee, is one of the party’s most outspoken social conservatives, has been flouting presidential intentions for months. He recently said he will make that announcement on May 27th. Governor Rick Perry, who once topped 2012 polls, is contemplating a redo. The new glasses aren’t the only thing different about “Perry 2.0;” the recently retired Texas Governor would be a more polished candidate this time around. Yet despite the new look, Perry would likely be crowded out by the newer candidates in a much more rigorous primary field. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal may enter the race sometime in June. Even former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, little known outside the Commonwealth, is thinking about running. Because, why not? Maybe the real question to ask, at this point, is who isn’t considering running for president. There are going to be a lot more presidential announcements in the next few months – perhaps more than a dozen more. Buckle up, America. We have a long ride ahead of us.