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Can anyone beat Hillary?

12/3/2014

Fresh off the historic 2014 midterm election, Iowa’s non-stop political cycle has been reset to the 2016 race for the White House. The Iowa caucus kicks off the presidential nominating process on Feb. 1, 2016 — less than 14 months away.

The paramount political question is: Can anyone beat Hillary Clinton? The chaos of the Obama presidency, the collapse of cooperation in Congress and the Democrats’ midterm disaster all benefit Hillary, who becomes the Democrats’ proverbial knight — riding in on a white horse to save the party.

But while Clinton has a lock on the Democratic nomination, the general election should be another closely contested battle. Republicans, buoyed by their midterm success, have newfound hope and no shortage of candidates. The critical question for the GOP should be: Who has the best chance of beating Hillary?

Hillary = caucus inevitability

Hillary Clinton is the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party and will be the nominee for president in 2016. No Democratic candidate can stop her ascension to the nomination. The only thing that could prevent it would be if something happened to one of the two most important men in her life: Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.

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New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the early Republican favorite until the recent Bridgegate scandal left the public questioning his abilities. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the early Republican favorite until the recent Bridgegate scandal left the public questioning his abilities. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The Democrats’ 2016 bench consists of vice-president Joe Biden, Minnesota senator Amy Klobucher, outgoing Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, independent Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb.

O’Malley has been a frequent visitor to Iowa and sent staffers to assist the Iowa Democratic Party last year. Sanders is on a media tour focusing on liberal causes. Schweitzer took a tour a year ago but has not returned. Webb has formed an exploratory committee. They all must decide whether they really want to slosh through winter snowstorms, endure the torrid summer heat and brave Iowa State Fair food — all for what would turn out to be a few scraps of the vote.

Klobucher and Warren were in Iowa this past fall helping Democrats and are being encouraged to run by liberals unhappy with the direction of the party. But both understand they cannot win and have little to gain by challenging the Clinton machine. Biden cannot beat Clinton, and there is little point in ending his career with a third failed attempt at the White House when he can instead enjoy the last few years at the top of the heap.

Clinton will sweep the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary and clear out any stragglers in the field before Super Tuesday. However, the general election is another matter.

The great right hope

Republicans will likely field one of the strongest crop of candidates in several years, and if they choose carefully, they have a solid chance of defeating Clinton. But the Electoral College math does not give them much margin for error.

Republicans believe they have cut into the Democratic advantages with Hispanic, female and young voters. But whether those shifts will prove to be a mid-term aberration or a valid trend may depend entirely on who Republicans select as a nominee.

Battle of the governors

The GOP’s best hope could emerge from the bevy of quality governors who may run, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Mike Pence and Scott Walker. This is where the heavy lifting may occur in the battle to define what the GOP will offer voters in a 2016 general election. But if Bush and Christie are in the race, it becomes harder to see a pathway for other governors. Jindal said he is praying about the decision, Pence may be posturing for vice-president and Walker, despite winning three elections in four years, is under investigation surrounding the funding of his 2012 recall election.

Many Republicans are taking a fresh look at Kasich, who pulled off a stunning re-election victory, winning his Ohio race by a whopping 64 percent of the vote. Kasich may have more experience than any other candidate, having been a four-term member of Congress and a two-term governor in a key swing state.

The members of Congress

While good governors can make good presidents, those in the legislative branch usually make good speakers (think Senator Obama), and that is what the GOP has in Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio and John Thune. The only House member being mentioned is 2010 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who will be busy attempting to fashion a budget and reform tax policy. Portman, Rubio and Thune may have trouble finding a constituency, but Cruz and Paul start out with substantial support.

The experienced John Kasich won his reelection to governor of Ohio by 64 percent, a stunning victory in a swing state. Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

The experienced John Kasich won his reelection to governor of Ohio by 64 percent, a stunning victory in a swing state. Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

Paul may be the most interesting person in American politics today. He was able to win election to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has been busy weaning from the strict ideology of his father, Ron Paul, to stake out positions which make his brand of libertarianism palatable to a wider range of voters. He has aggressively pursued African Americans, Hispanics and young voters. Still, his isolationist views haven’t quite been squared with the newfound dangers of ISIS and other foreign threats.

It appears that Cruz’s goal is to push the country into total political chaos and somehow hope that citizens will unite around him. Some believe he is the poster boy for Washington gridlock, as he appears to be against everything and for nothing. He has no experience running a government and is so disliked by members of Congress that a Cruz presidency might make Obama’s sparse accomplishments look like the New Deal. Still, he is a smart and calculating politician. He graduated cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard law school and has past experience at the Justice Department and on the Bush-Cheney campaign. Whether he can win the Iowa caucus will hinge on whether moderate Republicans put an end to the religious rights’ ability to promote candidates like him as legitimate general election contenders.

The non-traditionalists

Ben Carson is the pediatric neurosurgeon who lit up the base at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Since then he has been in demand as a conservative speaker and, remarkably, enjoys more polling support in a number of states than a majority of other possible GOP candidates. Carly Fiorina is the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She lost the 2010 California Senate race to Barbara Boxer but would enjoy unique attention as the only female in the GOP race.

Repeat customers 

Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are all considering dusting off their campaign armor and riding out to battle once again. Huckabee is likely using the process to keep himself relevant on cable television. Perry had worked to reshape his image until he was charged with misuse of office. While it appears to be a politically motivated charge, a candidate with a mug shot has a tougher road. Ironically, it appears easier to indict a sitting Republican governor in Texas than a police officer in Missouri. Santorum will have little room with Cruz in the race, and Romney’s name resurfaces each time moderates panic about their latest candidate tanking in the polls due to a scandal. It is unlikely Romney will want to suffer through another race.

The GOP Caucus — past and present

The only drama in the 2016 Iowa caucus will be on the GOP side. Iowa Republicans have a heavy responsibility this cycle and can do a great disservice to their party’s chance of winning the White House if they continue to legitimize the fringe candidates, who would lead their party to utter defeat, while tearing down the most able general election candidates in the field.

Rand Paul joined the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has tried to reach a wider range of voters with his Libertarian views. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rand Paul joined the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has tried to reach a wider range of voters with his Libertarian views. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There was a time when Iowa Republicans chose electable candidates in the caucuses.  From the first GOP caucus in 1976 until 2004, every GOP winner in Iowa went on to become a Republican nominee for president: Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1980, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bob Dole in 1988, George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, George Bush in 2000, and Bush again in 2004.

But starting in 1988, evangelical Republicans began to make their mark on the caucus. Taking advantage of lower turnouts, religious leaders brought their growing flock to the polls and shifted the playing field, first raising Pat Robertson from the dead to a second place finish in 1988, then Pat Buchanan to second place in 1996, while also promoting the likes of Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. Evangelicals finally won the caucuses outright in 2008 with Huckabee and again in 2012 with Santorum.

Many Iowa Republicans have been working to steer the ship back to safer seas.  Moderates have retaken control of the state party and retooled their organizational effort, as evidenced by their midterm success. Iowa Republicans now control five of the state’s six Congressional seats, five of the seven statewide offices including the governor’s mansion, and are just one vote shy of controlling both chambers of the state general assembly.

Many see former Florida governor Jeb Bush as the early favorite to win the GOP nomination. The Bush family has a history of success in Iowa, winning four Iowa Caucuses between the two former Bush presidents. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Many see former Florida governor Jeb Bush as the early favorite to win the GOP nomination. The Bush family has a history of success in Iowa, winning four Iowa Caucuses between the two former Bush presidents. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

National Republicans are pleased with the shift but are still concerned about what may happen in the caucus. If the state’s GOP voters can’t restrain themselves from advancing extreme candidates, then a case can be made to end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status because it promotes unelectable candidates and contributes to the GOP’s inability to win the White House.

Kingmaker or heartbreaker

Steve King just cruised to his ninth Congressional victory. He represents both a large swath of the state and the most rabid of conservative constituencies. His district is fertile ground for extreme right caucus players.

In 2008 and 2012, it was evangelical religious leader Bob Vander Plaats who held court for those wishing to secure the religious vote. But Vander Plaats has fallen from grace, unable to stop same-sex marriage and under a FEC investigatory cloud involving campaign spending.  While the conservative torch has been passed to King, the same pitfalls await the GOP.

U.S. Congressman Steve King is in his ninth term and represents extremely conservative constituencies. Republican candidates may need his support to win the Iowa Caucus. Photo by Douglas Burns

U.S. Congressman Steve King is in his ninth term and represents extremely conservative constituencies. Republican candidates may need his support to win the Iowa Caucus. Photo by Douglas Burns

King desperately wants to be relevant and, along with the group Citizens United, will be hosting the Iowa Freedom Summit next month, where he hopes to paint the GOP presidential candidates into a corner filled with anti-immigration, anti-feminist and anti-government rhetoric.  So far, only Cruz, Huckabee and Santorum have accepted the invitation. King’s event will be the first indication of whether presidential candidates can free themselves from the extreme right.  They can do that by not attending.

Fortunately for the other potential candidates, there are more GOP players in Iowa today than ever before. Both Governor Terry Branstad and Senator Charles Grassley have not ruled out endorsements. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds has become a GOP power broker. There are two new fresh face Congressmen in Rod Blum and David Young, and the brightest new star in the GOP galaxy with Senator Joni Ernst. GOP presidential candidates have many more wells to draw from, which could serve to further marginalize King and the extreme right.

In search of a winning candidate

Establishment Republicans nationwide have been searching for a candidate since Romney disappointed them in 2012. Their savior appeared to be Christie until Bridgegate severely sidetracked his chances. Without the bridge incident, he was the favorite of moderates and had an excellent chance of winning the nomination; it also likely kept Jeb Bush on the sidelines.

But the bridge scandal re-shaped how Christie was perceived both personally and as a viable general election candidate. The Bridgegate fallout is far worse than the Christie camp wishes to acknowledge. It may be akin to Bruce Braley’s liquor cart speech, as it is nearly impossible to regain what can be lost in an instant event. National GOP leaders started to look for another bet, and they turned to the former Florida governor.

But Christie forged ahead and raised tremendous amounts of money for GOP candidates as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. Just when he appeared to be re-writing his script, Christie had his infamous “shut up and sit down” moment with a Hurricane Sandy volunteer. While that behavior may play in Atlantic City, it has far less appeal in Atlantic, Iowa, or elsewhere across the Hawkeye State.

Bush is the early favorite to win the GOP nomination and perhaps the one GOP candidate with the best chance to defeat Clinton in what would be a titanic general election battle between two American political dynasties.

The conservative right is critical of Bush for his statements on a pathway to citizenship, Common Core education standards and support for tax hikes in a hypothetical deal to cut spending and lower the federal budget deficit. But Bush’s views on these issues are more in line with general election voters, and he may be the best hope the GOP has of shifting independents, Hispanics, women and young voters into the Republican camp for 2016 and perhaps beyond.

Bush may also be best equipped to raise the tremendous amounts of money necessary to win in 2016. His own connections coupled with those of his brother and father would be critical alongside the establishment money necessary to win in the post Citizens United political arena.

The Bush family has had tremendous success in Iowa, winning four caucuses. Jeb’s father beat Ronald Reagan in 1980, and his brother won handily in 2000 on his way to the White House.

Iowa Republicans must consider what it will really take to win the White House. It will not be an easy path against Clinton, and a victory cannot be achieved with a second-string candidate. The GOP needs a nominee with broad appeal, a popular message, access to large amounts of money and the ability to get to 270 Electoral College votes.

Perhaps the GOP should start thinking about a Bush-Kasich ticket. Florida and Ohio are two swing states worth 47 Electoral College votes or 17 percent of the total needed to win. The Democrats carried both states in 2008 and 2012, and Republicans likely cannot get to 270 without winning these crucial battleground states.

Many Americans may have Clinton and Bush fatigue, but these two political dynasties may be poised to do battle once again and may provide each of their respective parties the best chance of capturing the White House. The snow is already flying in the heartland, and the 2016 presidential contest is upon us.

Game on, Iowa. CV

James Strohman is a political correspondent for Cityview.

 

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